Minnesota

Minnesota's Rodney Smith gets hit by Nebraska's Darrion Daniels. The Gophers were able to find soft spots in the Huskers' offensive line to rush a total of 322 yards.

MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota carved up Nebraska’s defense with its run game Saturday night because it spotted soft spots disguised as strengths.

The Gophers thought they could run on Nebraska’s front seven, and they did — 322 yards with an average of 6.6 per carry. That’s a hefty total against a hefty front that averages 320 pounds.

Knowing they could run those stretch plays is one thing. Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said after the 34-7 win that doing what they wanted was another.

“It was one of the things you saw that scared you, it’s another thing to game plan and you hoped it would work,” Fleck said. “It worked. They’re strong, they’ve got transfers from everywhere. I mean, they’re a good looking D-line.”

The plan hatched to dominate Nebraska up front shined brightest during the second quarter when the Gophers had eight rushing plays that went at least 10 yards.

Even before that 15-minute stretch when Minnesota executed 17 rushing plays for 159 yards, there were signs of trouble brewing as early as Minnesota’s second play from scrimmage.

Following a 7-yard pass from Tanner Morgan to Tyler Johnson, running back Rodney Smith went 35 yards to Nebraska’s 29-yard line.

That was followed by back-to-back 7-yard runs by Smith and Shannon Brooks before Morgan connected with Chris Autman-Bell for a 15-yard touchdown pass 7:29 into the game that gave the Gophers a lead they would never lose.

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Four of those runs came in Minnesota’s opening drive of the second quarter, and three Minnesota backs contributed to the deluge across all four quarters. Smith led the trio with 139 yards on 18 carries.

Brooks, a senior who’s not even listed on Minnesota’s two-deep chart, had 13 carries for 99 yards. Sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim added 84 yards on 15 carries and scored three touchdowns.

Brooks got things started with a 25-yard run, Smith followed with runs of 7, 15 and 10 yards, and Ibrahim went the final 15 for Minnesota’s second touchdown. All three players were running through and over Nebraska defenders on all the carries during that drive.

While Minnesota’s third drive ended with a punt, the Gophers still continued to churn through Nebraska’s front seven. Ibrahim had an 11-yard gain while Brooks went for 13 and 28 yards on back-to-back plays.

Even while running out the clock to get to halftime in the final minute, Smith peeled off a 23-yard gain on a third-and-6 play. In all, the Gophers ran the ball 23 times for 220 yards in the first half.

How Nebraska got its yards, especially in the first half, went the way Fleck hoped it would.

“We felt if we could get them running sideways, their (line)backers wouldn’t fit right, then we (would) be able to run well,” Fleck said. “We did that. Then our backs broke tackles. Even when they did it right our backs broke tackles and made some plays.”

Fleck did expect that the Gophers would throw more than 13 passes. But with things going so well on the ground, there was no reason to air it out.

Morgan completed eight of those passes for 128 yards and one touchdown.

“It wasn’t like we even had to go to the RPO (run-pass option) game, we were running the ball so successfully,” Fleck said. “But that’s the whole game plan. Then once they decided to bring the safeties down on the outside and bring the corners, we decided to run our inside zone plays.”

Minnesota’s rushing yardage total dropped in the third quarter — 14 carries for 53 yards — but part of the reason was that three carries went for touchdown runs of 5, 1 and 1 yards. Ibrahim scored two of those touchdowns, and Smith had the other.

The Gophers didn’t need as many rushing yards in the third quarter, thanks in large part to a pair of 45-yard passes from Morgan to wide receiver Tyler Johnson.

The first came on the first play of the second half. The second was on the next-to-last play of the quarter. Both led to touchdowns.

That’s the game plan that helped Minnesota build its winning streak to eight games — the final two of 2018 and the first six of 2019 — to become bowl eligible much earlier than the Gophers did last season, when they needed a win over Wisconsin in the final game to reach that six-win threshold.

Fleck, who didn’t arrive to the postgame interview podium until 46 minutes after the game ended, is happy to hang the Gophers’ collective hat on that.

He’s delighted they’re bowl eligible, but said now the focus must switch to the next opponent, Rutgers.

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