When Rodney Smith emerged from the melee at the line of scrimmage, sprinting 64 yards to the Illinois 14-yard line, it felt like something in the Gophers’ universe finally slotted back into place.
The Gophers have always been a strong running team. With two seniors returned from injury this season, expectations were as high as ever. But in the first four games, the Gophers averaged just 2.6 yards per carry, one of the worst marks in the FBS. They hadn’t managed a run longer than 17 yards all season.
That changed Saturday. With misty weather causing the passing game to slip and miss, the running game broke out for its best game by far. The Gophers beat Illinois 40-17 at TCF Bank Stadium in front of an announced crowd of 39,341. They are 5-0 overall for the first time since 2004 and 2-0 in the Big Ten Conference.
“Coach [P.J.] Fleck put in our minds all week that we were going to have to establish the running game. So as a running back room, we knew we were going to have opportunities,” Smith said. “And to finally make an explosive play was relieving.”
A back-to-normal running game wasn’t the only reason for relief. This was also the first game this season the Gophers won with more than a one-possession difference, the first team since 1985 to start the season with four such games.
In the first half alone, the Gophers rushed for 196 yards. Smith ended the game with a career-high 211 yards on 24 carries — the first Gophers rusher to eclipse 200 yards since 2005, according to the Big Ten Network’s researchers — plus one touchdown. Fellow senior Shannon Brooks, in just his second game this season, posted 111 yards on 16 attempts, including a 21-yard touchdown, his first in nearly a year. It was the first time the Gophers have had two running backs each surpass 100 yards in more than a year.
Fleck said watching that pair succeed caused the sort of pride someone feels for his or her eldest children.
“It was so good to see them have the connection they had,” Fleck said. “They were hip-to-hip on the sideline. … Yeah, they rushed for yards. That’s great. I’m so proud of where they’ve come as men, where they were, what they’ve overcome and how they’ve led this football team.”
Smith and Brooks both missed most of last season with knee injuries. Smith started to look like his old self last week at Purdue, quietly rushing for 115 yards and a touchdown in a game in which sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan and the receivers commanded attention with sensational plays.
That didn’t repeat Saturday. After completing 95.5% of his passes at Purdue for the most accurate game in Big Ten history, Morgan went 9-for-17 for 155 yards. Receivers, among them senior Tyler Johnson, dropped some of those incompletions, while Morgan misthrew others, including one to a wide-open Smith.
Morgan threw a 40-yard pick-six to open the scoring, overthrowing tight end Ko Kieft and underthrowing receiver Rashod Bateman and giving a bevy of defenders a chance to intercept. His first touchdown was mostly Johnson’s doing, as he tipped the high throw before catching his own rebound in the end zone, all with three defenders around him.
The passing game, though, did come out of halftime with renewed vigor. On the first drive, Morgan connected with receiver Rashod Bateman for a 59-yard gain thanks to a run fake. Morgan then completed a 10-yard pass to Chris Autman-Bell in the end zone for a touchdown.
Morgan followed that up with another TD pass to freshman tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford, but mistakes still followed the Gophers.
Illinois sacked Morgan in the third quarter, forcing him to fumble. Linebacker Milo Eifler then scooped up the ball for a 7-yard return to the end zone.
“Illinois only scored 17 points. Fourteen were on offense, came from me,” Morgan said. “That can’t happen. I’m going to have to fix that and address that immediately.”
While the offense was up and down, the defense improved from a poor tackling day a week ago at Purdue. The unit limited Illinois’ usually high-scoring offense to 248 total yards, giving the Illini no red-zone scoring chances and only five conversions on 17 third downs.
The Gophers also held Illinois running back Reggie Corbin to 68 yards. They also sacked backup quarterback Miles Robinson three times after starter Brandon Peters left the game in the first half.
“Our defense played outstanding to not allow a touchdown,” Fleck said. “… We rallied to the ball better. We tackled better.”