Former Gophers quarterback Cory Sauter is the head football coach at Division II Southwest Minnesota State in Marshall. Those who watched Sauter’s aerial assault under Jim Wacker, then watched a painful transition to an option offense in Glen Mason’s first year, might never guess it, but Sauter has one of the nation’s leading rushers on his team this year.

“Being a big-time quarterback, he likes to throw the ball,” said SMSU junior running back Tyler Tonderum. “But he also knows that in order to make the pass game easier, you have to establish the run.”

Tonderum has more than established it. After getting just one carry last season while playing behind talented seniors, Tonderum has 1,979 yards rushing this season — third in the country at all levels of NCAA football. His exploits, while running behind an offensive line full of five senior starters, have helped the Mustangs to a 7-4 record and their first berth ever in the Mineral Water Bowl. Tonderum is the first player in SMSU history to be named a finalist for the Harlon Hill Trophy, given to nation’s top D-II player.

“It’s really been a huge surprise,” he said of his season and the team’s success.

The Mustangs run an up-tempo, Oregon-style offense that still includes plenty of passing (more than 3,000 yards this season). But Tonderum averages nearly 29 carries a game, a number boosted by his 50-carry performance (for 282 yards) in a 52-48 victory over Upper Iowa last month.

“Going into halftime, I was thinking, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to be able to keep this up,’” the 5-10, 191-pound Tonderum said. “But it was a tight game and the run game was there. I was tired but kept chugging.”

That philosophy served him well at Armstrong-Ringsted High in Iowa, just south of the Minnesota border. He played 8-Man football and finished with 6,395 yards rushing — a state record for that level at the time, which was broken earlier this year.

“I had been around a lot of football, so it wasn’t so much the schemes,” Tonderum said. “But three more people out there — it was an interesting transition.”

Turns out it was just three more people who had a hard time stopping him.