Bennett's value shows through in subtle ways

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 4, 2011 - 12:26 PM

The fifth-year senior running back has done whatever Jerry Kill has asked of him.

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The Gophers' Duane Bennett had his first 100-yard rushing game in over a year on Saturday against Iowa.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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His highlight for the season might be difficult to top: Diving in front of a punt, then scrambling up in time to fall on the ball in the end zone, a play that led directly to the Gophers football team's victory over Miami (Ohio). And his best play last week, as far as his coach is concerned, resulted in a touchdown that was scored by someone else.

Judge Duane Bennett's season, and his Gophers career, by the typical statistical standards if you like -- 100-yard games, rank among Big Ten leaders, yards per carry -- but know this: None of that means much to Bennett himself.

"It's about making a contribution to the team, in any way I can," the fifth-year senior tailback said. "Just being consistent, doing whatever I can to put us in position to have a chance to win. A player can run for 200, 300 yards and that team can still get the loss. I'd rather have the win."

He got one Saturday, a 22-21 rivalry win over Iowa, and coach Jerry Kill pointed to Bennett's play as one key factor -- and he wasn't talking about any of the tailback's 20 rushes. Trailing by five, the Gophers faced fourth-and-goal from the Hawkeyes 3 late in the game, and quarterback MarQueis Gray's instructions were to look for a quick slant pass across the middle.

But the play was covered, and Gray went to his second option: bootleg right. Trouble was, an Iowa linebacker was stationed on the line of scrimmage to contain that very move.

Bennett made sure he didn't.

"It was kind of a routine play for me. I had been cutting [pass-rushers] inside the entire game, and I wanted to continue that," said Bennett, who made sure he stepped into the defender's left side, forcing him to move to his right. "He tried to olé me, jumped out of the way," too late to stop Gray from getting outside.

"The key play was Duane's block --he cut the guy in half, and [Gray] was able to get around on the edge," Kill said. "So not only did [Bennett] do a good job of running the ball, he blocked much better, and he just kind of ... came out of his shell and played with some confidence."

Confidence really hasn't been a problem, Bennett said -- even when things don't go right. He's cognizant of his status as a senior and as a leader, and tends to be low-key about his own game, both his successes and mistakes. He fumbled near midfield Saturday during the second quarter, for instance, a painful mistake for someone who's trying to set an example for his younger teammates. So he tried to set an example for how to handle adversity.

"A lot of guys, it absolutely crushes them," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "I didn't see any ill effects, any hangdog. That's so important, but you know, it's not always easy to do."

No helmet-throwing, no tantrum, Bennett told himself. Just a firmer resolve to make sure it didn't happen again.

"I'm my own worst critic, so I was telling myself to flush it, it's done. It wasn't like I can go out there and snatch the ball from the Iowa center and get it back. Go about it as if it never happened," Bennett said. A tantrum "shows that the team is inside your head. It shows you can't keep composed. If I had thrown my helmet, it might have had a trickle-down effect on how other players reacted."

Kill noticed how he reacted. "Duane is a proud kid, and I think it bothered him, and he played even harder to make up for the fumble," Kill said. "He's a competitive kid. He's a senior. Duane has been great to me since the day I walked in the door, been very positive, so I was very happy for him."

Happy about what looked like a breakout game. Bennett finished the day with 101 rushing yards, the first time this season he's reached that triple-digit benchmark. First time since the second game of the 2010 season, in fact, that he's gotten there -- a statistic Bennett said meant little.

"It feels better having a win. To bring the morale of the team [up] is better than celebrating my own accomplishments," said Bennett, whose per-game average is up to 50.8 yards, a career high. "The win brings a lot of joy to me and my teammates."

And his play is impressing his coaches, too.

"I don't think we've been real good teammates, offensively. I don't know if there was a lot there for him [in previous games], but he probably missed some things, too," Limegrover said.

"For Duane to run as hard as he did Saturday, there was an energy about him, a lot of broken tackles, and we did a better job up front for him. He was able to see some things he hadn't seen before, and it made a big difference for the entire offense."

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