The top two members of the Gophers running back room, Mohamed Ibrahim and Trey Potts, are out for the season. Another, reserve Cam Wiley, entered the transfer portal on Monday.
Still, there the Gophers were Saturday against Maryland at Huntington Bank Stadium, trampling all over the Terrapins with their Nos. 3, 4 and 5 running backs in a 34-16 victory in front of an announced 41,011.
Redshirt freshman Ky Thomas carried 21 times for 139 yards and a touchdown. True freshman Mar'Keise "Bucky'' Irving toted the ball 15 times for 105 yards and a TD. And the remaining veteran, fourth-year junior Bryce Williams, rushed 13 times for 48 yards and a score.
In all, the Gophers rushed 56 times for 326 yards, both season highs. Thomas and Irving gave the Gophers two 100-yard rushers in the same game for the first time since Oct. 5, 2019, when Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks accomplished the feat.
"We talked all week that it was gonna have to be dirty, gonna have to be nasty and put your hand down in the ground,'' Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. "If were gonna have to run it 50 times, we'd run it 50 times.''
The backs' efforts, and continued yeoman's work by the offensive line, enabled the Gophers (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) to win their third consecutive conference game and draw even with idle Iowa atop the West Division. The Gophers travel to Northwestern on Saturday, while Iowa visits Wisconsin (2-2 Big Ten), which is tied for third place in the West after beating Purdue.
Minnesota's defense had a big hand in the win, too, by holding Maryland (4-3, 1-3) to 10 first-half points and a TD with 1:31 left in the fourth quarter.
Up 17-10 at the half, the Gophers scored touchdowns on their first two third-quarter possessions and stretched the lead to 34-10 on Matthew Trickett's 43-yard field goal that finished a 13-play, 55-yard march that drained 8:42 from the clock between the third and fourth quarters.
Minnesota finished the game with 23 consecutive runs, bludgeoning Maryland's defense.
"I don't know if they were necessarily getting fatigued,'' Gophers guard Conner Olson said of the Terrapins defensive players, "but a big philosophy on our offense is body blows. Around the third quarter is when we like to see if there's going to be a little bit more give as we continued to lean on them. That's what we did. We executed our game plan.''
The results showed as the Gophers kept the ball for 20:25 in the second half — compared with Maryland's 9:35 — and 37:35 for the game. Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan was called upon to pass only four times in the second half, all on the first drive.
"I had the best seat in the house,'' Morgan said after he watched his line pave the way for the backs to average 5.8 yards per carry. Morgan finished 8-for-12 for 125 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions.
Meanwhile, Minnesota's defense kept shifty Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa in check, limiting him to 17-for-27 passing for 189 yards and holding him to 10 yards rushing on five carries.
"[Defensive coordinator] Joe Rossi and his entire staff did a great job in creating a blueprint to force [Tagovailoa] into some bad throws and get to him as much as we possibly could with just four [pass rushers],'' Fleck said. "Our players executed that blueprint perfectly.''
The Gophers built their first-half lead on touchdowns by Cole Kramer out of the wildcat formation and Thomas on a 10-yard run, plus a 37-yard field goal by Trickett.
The lead stretched to 24-10 on Williams' 2-yard run on the first possession of the third quarter, a TD set up by Morgan's 35-yard connection with Mike Brown-Stephens to the Maryland 4-yard line.
On its first possession of the third quarter, Maryland opted to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Gophers 34. Tagovailoa threw incomplete, and Minnesota used the great field position to extend the lead to 31-10 on Irving's 9-yard touchdown run with 5:31 left in the third quarter. Irving carried three times for 21 yards, and Thomas gained 13 yards on the drive's other play.
The body blows were adding up, and the 13-play, 55-yard drive that ate 8:42 off the clock and ended with Trickett's 43-yard field goal with 8:58 left in the fourth quarter put the game out of reach. Thomas, Irving, Williams and Kramer combined for 11 carries for 70 yards on the march.
"You all got to see their strengths, especially the young backs,'' Fleck said.