Two weeks ago, Gophers football players watched a segment of former Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch’s 2016 interview with “60 Minutes Sports.”
“It just clicked in my mind that if you just run through somebody’s face,” Lynch explained, “a lot of people aren’t going to be able to take that over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over … and over and over and over and over and over again. They just not gonna want that.”
Lynch repeated “over” 15 times to drive home the point that his famed “Beast Mode” doesn’t stop for anybody. For the 17th-ranked Gophers, it doesn’t stop with one running back.
Instead of one Lynch, Minnesota (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) has been sharing carries between Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks and Mo Ibrahim. Heading into Saturday’s game against Maryland (3-4, 1-3) at TCF Bank Stadium, the Gophers have the Big Ten’s second-best rushing attack, averaging 236 yards a game.
Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck was thrilled with the distribution of carries in a 34-7 win over the Cornhuskers on Oct. 12. Heathy together for the first time all season, Smith had 18 rushes, Ibrahim 15 and Brooks 13. Combined, they averaged 7.1 yards a carry.
In four conference games, the Gophers have run the ball on 67 percent of offensive snaps. Only third-ranked and unbeaten Ohio State is averaging more rushing yards (319) in Big Ten games.
“We, as running backs, just had to make people miss and run people over and over and over and over again,” Smith said.
“Over and over and over again.”
Smith has done it so many times he’s now on the verge of passing Darrell Thompson for first place on Minnesota’s all-purpose yardage list. Heading into his 47th game, Smith needs 96 yards to pass Thompson’s 5,109 amassed over 45 games.
Smith’s 3,745 rushing yards rank fourth all-time at the U, and he’s 65 yards from Thomas Hamner for third, 188 behind Laurence Maroney for second and 909 away from Thompson’s record 4,654.
Smith could have more yards this year with more carries, and that would be justified with two stats from Pro Football Focus. He averages nearly four yards per carry after contact and has forced 33 missed tackles this season.
But the Gophers’ running back depth has been able to wear down opponents while resting their own, including Smith when he had an oblique injury against Georgia Southern.
In last week’s 42-7 win over Rutgers, Smith had 19 carries and Ibrahim 15, but Brooks was limited to five in his fourth game back from a knee injury.
“When we got to a point where we felt like we had the game in control, the first one to not take those carries (Brooks) was the one that was closest to a surgery or an injury or things like that,” Fleck explained.
Fewer carries could come in handy soon. After Maryland, the Gophers face three ranked opponents: No. 6 Penn State, No. 20 Iowa and No. 13 Wisconsin.
Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said he has relied on one workhorse running back in his career, with diminishing returns.
“In my history one of the things I’ve learned … is that when you run a back that much and you get to 30-plus carries on them, he’s not quite the same player the next week, usually,” he said.
Smith, a sixth-year senior, said he doesn’t feel old except when he goes into the Athletes Village cafeteria. Quarterback Tanner Morgan said he’s seen Smith play like a teenager.
“He’s very energetic throughout the game, very passionate about the game of football and you can see that,” Morgan said. “He kind of drives passion in our offense and our team.”
The Gophers pride themselves on the inside-zone running play being their bread and butter. Fleck has declared it. But this year, they’ve tried to mix in more outside zone.
“We were leading the country on negative runs on outside zone after (nonconference play),” Ciarrocca said. “… We really needed to develop that second pitch. You don’t want to be a one-pitch pitcher.”
During the Gophers’ first bye week in September, Ciarrocca, line coach Brian Callahan and the rest of the offensive staff “started at ground zero again” on the play.
“We had to master it,” Ciarrocca said. “The one thing that Brian and I had talked about with the play, surrender was not an option. … We had to get there with it, and it was a race against time.”
The Gophers have had more success with outside-zone runs in Big Ten play and — no surprise — Smith leads the way.
“It is good to have another play to go to,” Smith said. “I think (running backs) coach (Kenni) Burns told me that 92 percent of my explosive runs have come off of outside zone, and I never would have guessed that coming into this year.”