The Gophers picked a fitting day to honor former All-Big Ten running back Laurence Maroney.
A sellout crowd at TCF Bank Stadium gave Maroney a standing ovation in the first quarter Saturday. A few minutes later, the Gophers unveiled freshman running back Shannon Brooks.
Brooks and Rodney Smith did a pretty good imitation of what the Gophers had in 2003 and 2004, when Maroney and Marion Barber were both putting up 1,000-yard seasons.
Brooks and Smith got all the running back carries in Minnesota’s 27-24 win over Ohio.
Brooks, a true freshman, rushed for 8 and 23 yards on his first two college carries. Then he darted for a 40-yard touchdown, shaking and baking two defenders along the way. He added the game-winning 3-yard touchdown and finished with 10 carries for 82 yards.
Smith is a redshirt freshman who continued his role as the team’s lead tailback. He had 16 carries for 94 yards, and added four receptions for 58 yards.
Both players hail from Georgia. Brooks is from the mountains, in Jasper, and Smith is from suburban Atlanta, in Jonesboro.
“We have a good connection,” Smith said. “We hang out a lot. We were roommates [at the team hotel] the night before the game.
“And it was more exciting watching him score his first touchdown than when I scored my first touchdown [against TCU].
“I really can’t explain why, but I felt like a big brother.”
Brooks had played some special teams for the Gophers. They inserted him on one offensive play at Colorado State — a read option play that resulted in a fumble between him and quarterback Mitch Leidner.
“I wasn’t going into this game that nervous,” Brooks said. “You can’t let one play define you as a player. You’ve just got to bounce back and keep a positive attitude about it.”
Maroney, 30, set the team’s single-season rushing record in 2005, with 1,464 yards. David Cobb broke that mark last season with 1,626.
“I was really proud of [Cobb] because after me and Marion left, the running back spot, it did good, but it wasn’t the same,” Maroney said. “And just to see him come back and really breathe life into the position, it brought tears to my eyes.”
Maroney, who played in the 2008 Super Bowl for the Patriots, lives in his hometown of St. Louis now. He works with rapper J-Kwon.
Four would-be starters remained out — safety Damarius Travis (hamstring), left tackle Ben Lauer (knee, hand), left guard Jon Christenson (knee) and tight end Lincoln Plsek (back).
Two injured players returned for the Ohio game — tight end Brandon Lingen (concussion) and safety Charles Rogers (knee).
But the Gophers took several more injuries against Ohio — safety Antonio Johnson (head), cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun (unspecified), linebacker Cody Poock (rib), cornerback KiAnte Hardin and wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky (unspecified).
Left tackle Jonah Pirsig injured his left shoulder and briefly came out before returning.
“I’ve never ever been decimated by injuries like what happened today,” coach Jerry Kill said.
Kill was relieved that the starting offensive line stayed intact — Pirsig, left guard Joe Bjorklund, center Brian Bobek, right guard Connor Mayes and right tackle Josh Campion.
“One of them’s banged up pretty good,” Kill said. “But Jonah, he goes, ‘No way. I’m hanging in there, Coach.’ He rooms with Mitch Leidner, so I think they’re pretty tough kids.”
• Redshirt freshman receiver Isaiah Gentry had his first two college receptions, for 36 yards.