When Mohamed Ibrahim is on the field, no one would mistake him for a soaring bird or jet-propelled plane.
But in P.J. Fleck’s assessment, Ibrahim is still Superman — especially so in the Gophers’ 41-14 win at Illinois on Saturday.
“Remember when Superman used to like look and —” insert Fleck’s own zinging laser sound effect — “He can see and feel blocks and holes, and he’s got a great spatial awareness about him. And he plays so low, his center of gravity. And he’s explosive and strong.”
Even Fleck said anyone walking down the street wouldn’t take the 5-10, 210-pound junior as “one of the most special backs in America.” Yet while he might not have immense size, speed or strength, his vision has made him the best rusher in the Big Ten Conference so far this season.
Ibrahim matched a career best with 224 yards on 30 carries, making him just the second Gophers player to rush for 200-plus yards in back-to-back games.
He also scored four touchdowns for the second consecutive game, again tying the school record for rushing scores in a game.
Through three games in 2020, Ibrahim has 10 touchdowns and 571 yards on 97 carries.
While Ibrahim assumed the No. 1 role as a redshirt freshman two seasons ago with injuries to Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith, he stepped back into their shadows in 2019. This year, though, has seen him develop into not just the undisputed starter but the consistent star.
He attributed that progress to work he did during the pandemic, with extra time to study his game.
“Since March, we’ve been watching film, getting on the same page as the O-line,” Ibrahim said. “Some plays out there, you can actually see me just be patient, wait an extra second. Where last year, I would have just … put my head down and got 3 yards. But now I’m just waiting ... understanding that the O-line is going to get there and not get too fast off my reads.”
Ibrahim’s performances have quite literally carried the team despite an 0-2 start to the year. But in this first win, he benefited from more help from the passing game — including a 5-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tanner Morgan to receiver Rashod Bateman — and his backup running backs — including Treyson Potts’ first career score on a 9-yard run to open the game.
The defense, averaging a conference-worst 578 allowed offensive yards entering the game, also pulled more weight, managing to hold the 0-3 Illini — forced to start their fourth-string quarterback — to 287 offensive yards, including 106 in the air.
That unit did so without defensive coordinator Joe Rossi calling the shots; he tested positive for COVID-19 this past week. But linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin said the players took it upon themselves to not let a change in leadership — defensive backs/safeties coach Joe Harasymiak stepped in — affect what happened on the field.
“The person sending the call onto the field doesn’t matter, and it’s the same calls that Coach Rossi would have called,” Sori-Marin said. “… It was the players coming together with the coaches to focus on the details and execute them.”
The Gophers’ passing game, which seemed to have sputtered the past two games despite returning All-Big Ten players Morgan and Bateman — also rediscovered its spark a bit. The offense generated 541 yards, with Morgan going 17-for-27 for 231 yards passing, with one score and one interception. The interception set the Illini up for a score, with quarterback Coran Taylor throwing 52 yards to Josh Imatorbhebhe in the fourth quarter.
“There was a couple times where I missed some throws, and that’s unacceptable, can’t happen, and we would have had some more stuff going on,” Morgan said. “But … knowing you can run the ball extremely well, it definitely makes things easier on the outside.”
The Gophers have another short turnaround before facing Iowa on Friday night at TCF Bank Stadium, one of the two border-rivalry games they lost in their 11-2 season last year. And Ibrahim will have to recover quickly to continue his superhuman heroics.
“Preparing like it’s your last game,” Ibrahim said. “And then every day, you come into the facility with a new mind-set, what you want to attack that day. And every day, you get better.
“That’s the only thing we can do.”
Megan Ryan did not travel to Illinois for Saturday’s game. She wrote this account after watching the television broadcast and participating in interviews via videoconference.