Tanner Morgan threw completion after completion, making history in the Big Ten with his 95.5% accuracy. A trio of Gophers receivers captivated with sizzling plays.
Meanwhile, Rodney Smith waded through the fracas, pushing his way past Purdue’s defensive linemen, toiling for just a yard or two.
Morgan and the passing game is what people will rightfully remember from the Gophers’ 38-31 win at Purdue this past Saturday. But with his head metaphorically down, Smith quietly trucked his way to his best game of the season so far, netting 115 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries.
The senior missed most of last season because of a torn left ACL. And while he’s played every game this year, this past Saturday’s road trip might have been his biggest ask. With No. 2 running back Mohamed Ibrahim still hobbled by a leg injury and fellow senior Shannon Brooks on reduced snaps in his first game back after a right knee injury last season, Smith literally carried the load.
“It was fun to get in a groove running the ball,” Smith said Wednesday. “We had some guys down, limited roles. So it was exciting to get in there and provide for the team whenever they needed.”
In Smith’s own words, Purdue really “committed” to stopping the run, even when the Gophers’ slant routes continuously torched the Boilermakers’ cornerbacks. But toward the end of the game, Purdue loosened up a bit, which gave Smith his opening.
Smith gained 36 yards on eight carries in the fourth quarter, mostly on the last drive of the game when the Gophers just needed to preserve their lead and burn four minutes. Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said he wasn’t surprised at Smith’s solid game. He sensed it was coming after Week 3 against Georgia Southern, when Smith managed 57 yards on 11 carries before a first-half injury took him out of the game.
“In the Georgia Southern game, Rodney turned the corner,” Ciarrocca said. “… I liked how decisive he was in that game. And I thought, OK, we’re moving forward now with him. We’re really shaking that rust off.”
Smith didn’t quite feel that way, but he did say he’s “getting more comfortable.” The Gophers will need their leading rusher, with his 3,284 career yards, as the run game has yet to dominate a game. In fact, the Gophers 2.6 yards per carry ranks 126th of 130 FBS teams.
“We have to have more explosive runs. And as a running back room, we know that. And that’s on us,” Smith said. “Because the O-line is doing, definitely, a better job. We’re getting to the third level, and we have to make guys miss and turn those gains of 15, 16 into 25-plus yard runs.”
Luckily for the Gophers, though, the passing game has helped supplement what the ground game has lacked. Unluckily for the Gophers, Smith isn’t expecting Saturday’s opponent Illinois to let up on defending the run at all.
Smith said he can’t take the entire burden of sparking the rush on himself. In fact, when he, Ibrahim, Brooks and freshman Cam Wiley all missed part or all of the Georgia Southern game, it was sophomore Bryce Williams that took responsibility.
That’s the expectation in the room, Smith said, to stay mentally sharp in case injuries force the Gophers to reach deep into their running back depth. And Smith, as the sixth-year senior, sets that standard.
“This is going to sound crazy — it’s like having the grandfather on the field,” coach P.J. Fleck said. “ ... I think a lot of the young guys feel so good when he’s around because he has so much knowledge. And there are times when you have to put everything on his back.
“And we had to [in the Purdue game]. ... He got better as the game went on. That is what you want from your upperclassmen is they get stronger as they go.”