When Donnell Kirkwood took handoffs in the fourth quarter Saturday, he was surrounded by beef. Five offensive linemen, three tight ends, and a halfback all lined up around him.
You need that much help, Donnell?
"Power football -- I love it," the sophomore tailback said. "My O-line loves it. When coach calls that formation, you see them smile from ear to ear."
Everyone was smiling about Kirkwood's performance against Western Michigan. He took a career-high 23 handoffs, and turned them into the first 100-yard game of his career. He finished with 110 yards -- 84 after halftime -- and did it in his usual bruising style. He broke off one gain of 26 yards but otherwise pounded the line for 3 yards, 4 yards, 5 yards.
"He had to step up," Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. "He got us out of tough field position. He played hard, and we needed him to."
Kirkwood, one of a quartet of potential starters on opening night, seems to have locked up his spot atop the depth chart with three solid games. "It feels good. It feels good because [it means] I'm doing something right in practice and off the field as well," Kirkwood said.
The only bad part of his day was a third-and-1 carry in the fourth quarter, a play the Broncos sniffed out and stopped for a 3-yard loss. But the Gophers survived, thanks to their defense. And some big guys up front.
Western Michigan's spread offense calls for players to be shuffled in and out quickly, and while the rules say the defense must be provided reasonable time to make its own adjustments, the definition of "reasonable" is left up to the officials.
Kill complained several times that his defense didn't have time to get substitutes on and off the field. At one point, it cost the Gophers: A fourth-down stop for no gain by linebacker Spencer Reeves was overturned by the replay official, who discovered that the Gophers had 12 men on the field.
"My frustration was, give us time to match up the personnel," Kill said. "They don't have to do that if they don't change personnel -- you can go, go, go. But if you change personnel, you have to give the defense time to set up. The official said, 'Coach, I'm giving you reasonable time.'"
• The Gophers were without starting center Zach Mottla, injured during practice on Thursday. Right guard Zac Epping moved into Mottla's spot, and sophomore Caleb Bak took over Epping's role. Freshman receiver Andre McDonald also did not play for a second consecutive week, after suffering an infected leg in Las Vegas two weeks ago. Cornerback Martez Shabazz was held out with an undisclosed injury. Kill said linebacker Lamonte Edwards and receiver Devin Crawford-Tufts were injured during the game, but he did not have updates on their condition.
• Reeves wore No. 51 on Saturday, the jersey of late linebacker Gary Tinsley.
• Defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman appeared to make an athletic interception, but it was overturned on replay. "I just saw the ball and had to go for it," Hageman said of his grab of a deflection.
• The BTN broadcast was interrupted by technical difficulties for several minutes in the first quarter, and viewers missed the Gophers' first touchdown. But Dish Network subscribers didn't see the game at all; negotiations between the network and Dish on payment for carriage broke down, blacking out the channel.