Rodney Smith got the glory Saturday, but the Gophers tailback knew he wasn’t the only one responsible for the longest run of his career.
Maryland had trimmed Minnesota’s lead to 14 points when Smith took a fourth-quarter handoff from Conor Rhoda and cut through a huge hole. The Big Ten’s third-leading rusher veered to the right sideline and made one last defender miss for a 70-yard touchdown.
“I didn’t have to do much,” Smith said. “I got to the Red Sea, as I call it. It split open, and all I had to do was run straight.”
Rewind the video for a moment because that play offered a telling look at where things stand for the 4-2 Gophers at midseason.
The defense has found a groove, holding Iowa and Maryland to one touchdown apiece the past two weeks. But the offense sputtered badly against Iowa. It has several moving parts, and how well that unit gels will determine Minnesota’s finish.
Start with quarterback. Rhoda, a former walk-on, played the first meaningful snaps of his college career with Mitch Leidner out with a concussion. Leidner stayed home to rest this weekend, and there is still no timetable for his return.
So Rhoda might start next week against Rutgers, at least. He had a turnover-free day against Maryland and completed seven of 15 passes for 82 yards — classic game manager mode.
But something happened before Smith’s run that’s worth noting. Rhoda went to the line for the third-and-1 play, read Maryland’s defense and audibled.
“They were bringing a blitz, and we were able to see that and get checked over, to run away from it,” Rhoda said.
Rhoda led Smith into the “two hole” between the center and right guard.
The center, Tyler Moore, created a seal to the left. Right guard Connor Mayes and right tackle Nick Connelly blocked their defenders, opening the Red Sea.
It seemed so simple. Fans still fuming about the Iowa game plan — 21 rushes for Smith and Shannon Brooks, compared with 33 passes for Leidner — probably howled, as the Gophers rediscovered their bread and butter.
A snapshot: On 27 first-down plays against Maryland, the Gophers had 21 rushes and six passes.
But the Gophers line had considerably more success moving Maryland’s defensive front than Iowa’s.
Rewind Smith’s run again, and study the personnel. There was one offensive lineman who’s been a fixture all season — Moore.
Senior right tackle Jonah Pirsig suffered a high ankle sprain against Iowa and is expected to miss one or two more games, at least. Another tackle, Garrison Wright, departed Saturday’s game with a foot injury in the third quarter.
Gophers coach Tracy Claeys sounded optimistic that none of this week’s new injuries were serious, which suggests Wright could be ready for Rutgers.
But after Wright got injured, the Gophers were using Donnell Greene at left tackle and a combination of walk-on Chad Fahning and the redshirt freshman Connelly at right tackle.
At guard, the Gophers are rotating three players — Mayes, Jared Weyler and Vincent Calhoun — through two spots. It’s a necessity with Calhoun slowly recovering from turf toe.
Note: It was Mayes, not Calhoun, on the field Saturday for Smith’s two touchdown runs, and the screen pass touchdown from Rhoda to Brooks.
Another key for this offense is tight end Brandon Lingen, who returned Saturday after missing three games with a broken clavicle. He managed just one catch for 8 yards, but he was among those blocking on Smith’s 70-yarder.
“[Lingen] did OK,” Claeys said. “He’s a little rusty. He will continue to get better and better as we go.”
One final thought on Smith’s run: The Gophers are fortunate they didn’t foul it up with a pre-snap penalty.
With three more false-start penalties and one illegal formation flag Saturday, this offense has drawn 17 pre-snap penalties in six games.
Claeys was pleased with the team’s overall performance but added, “Offensively, we still have some things to clean up.”
Joe Christensen covers college football for the Star Tribune. E-mail: email@example.com