P.J. Fleck pulled out a black Sharpie and sketched a jagged arrow that started in the bottom corner on the back of a scrap piece of paper and ended at the top.
That was how the coach could best describe Rodney Smith’s six-year Gophers career. It also looked a lot like his signature runs, whether from dodging defenders, breaking tackles or powering into end zones.
Much like how Fleck stained that white paper, Smith wrote his name in permanent ink into the Gophers record books Saturday, becoming the leader with 5,117 all-purpose yards. He claimed the record — which had stood for 30 years — in the most fitting way: with a touchdown in the Gophers’ 52-10 blowout of Maryland.
In front of an announced TCF Bank Stadium crowd of 44,715, Smith helped the No. 17 Gophers enter their bye week 8-0 for the first time since 1941, including being 5-0 in the Big Ten Conference for the first time since 1961. A meeting with their first ranked opponent of the season, undefeated No. 6 Penn State, awaits Nov. 9.
In typical veteran fashion, Smith said he didn’t know he broke the record on that third-quarter play because he was just trying to score. But he did say he, of course, came into college with goals like this and being at the top means a lot.
Especially considering the highs and lows of his career, which Fleck detailed with his drawing. Smith has played under three coaches, endured a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament tear last year and had several opportunities to quit. But he persevered, and Fleck said “there is nobody who is more deserving” of this record-setting moment.
“I know that it’s been a long journey,” Smith said. “And I wouldn’t do it with any other group of guys than the team I’m on now.”
Smith, who rushed for 103 yards on 17 carries, has strung together five consecutive games of 100 or more rushing yards and now ranks in the top three of Gophers’ all-time rushers with 3,848 yards. The Gophers are on a 10-game winning streak dating to last season, the longest since the early 1940s.
While Maryland had run over the Gophers the past two seasons in the Big Ten opener, the Gophers turned the tables this year. The team amassed 321 rushing yards and 498 total offensive yards. The Gophers defense limited the Terrapins to 210 yards, 79 on the ground.
Fellow running backs Mohamed Ibrahim and Shannon Brooks contributed a couple of carries, as did young backs Treyson Potts and Preston Jelen in the fourth quarter. But the surprises were quarterback Tanner Morgan and his 30 yards on scrambles and wildcat quarterback Seth Green.
The Gophers relied on the wildcat formation heavily last season, when Smith and Brooks were injured for most of the year. This season, it has been largely dormant. But Green tallied 34 yards on six carries, plus two touchdowns. And he came into the game not just in scoring situations but in several short-yardage scenarios.
“We needed our best players to play their best,” Fleck said. “And then we also needed the guys who haven’t played a ton to go in there and play their best.”
The Gophers receivers showed once again their talent, with Tyler Johnson tipping a too-high Morgan throw right to Rashod Bateman for a 20-yard gain before burning his defender to score a 16-yard touchdown.
On the defensive side, safety Antoine Winfield Jr. needed only the second snap of the game to grab his fifth interception of the year and return it 30 yards to set up the Gophers’ first touchdown.
Morgan threw a 9-yard touchdown to Bateman to capitalize on that momentum shifter. And cornerback Coney Durr later made a pick and the score all on his own, returning Maryland quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome’s tipped pass 72 yards.
Those interceptions proved a bit contagious. Morgan threw his own when he overshot Bateman, and the 40-yard return led to a Maryland field goal.
Morgan finished the game completing 12 of 21 passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns.
Even without the Gophers’ best defensive player, injured linebacker Kamal Martin, that unit limited the Terrapins to converting only two of 11 third downs. The defense also posted three tackles for a loss, including two sacks.
But the postgame locker room celebration was the loudest of the season because of Smith. Not just for his historic outing but for all he’s experienced in his years with the Gophers.
“It’s just so cool,” Morgan said. “Rodney’s story is insane and just to kind of be a part of that for him and for our team is just special.”