MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota has quite the 1-2-3 punch in its running game this season.
The Gophers hit Colorado State with two of them all afternoon and completed nonconference play unbeaten.
Rodney Smith rushed 17 times for 99 yards and two touchdowns and Shannon Brooks returned from injury to net 85 yards and a score on 13 carries, helping Minnesota wear down the Rams on the way to a 31-24 victory on Saturday.
“They’re both awfully good,” coach Tracy Claeys said of his sophomore tailback tandem, “so it doesn’t matter which way it ends up.”
Brooks, the team’s leading rusher last season, missed the first two games because of a broken foot. Kobe McCrary, who piled up 176 yards rushing two weeks ago against Indiana State, rushed for 13 yards on four carries.
“They had fresh legs coming in all the time,” Rams safety Jake Schlager said, adding, “They definitely used it to their advantage.”
Factor in quarterback Mitch Leidner, who took off 10 times for 50 yards and a touchdown, and the Gophers (3-0) have their running game going just the way they want it entering Big Ten play.
Leidner is looking as spry as ever after suffering foot injuries in each of the last two Septembers that hampered his sophomore and junior years. He made some cuts and jukes for extra yardage that made Brooks and Smith proud.
“I’ve never been healthy coming out of the nonconference so it feels really good,” said Leidner, who completed 16 of 20 passes for 174 yards .
Freshman Collin Hill, making his second start at quarterback for the Rams (2-2), cut Colorado State’s deficit to seven points with a 15-yard toss to Michael Gallup with 6:24 remaining. The Gophers followed with a three-and-out, but Hill’s fourth-down pass at the Minnesota 45 around the 2-minute mark was broken up by Adekunle Ayinde to quash the comeback.
The Rams, who started three different quarterbacks over the first three games, have come a long way since a 44-7 loss to Colorado in their opener.
“I believe we’re close to becoming a pretty good football team,” coach Mike Bobo said.
Leidner’s underthrow toward the sideline was intercepted near midfield by Braylin Scott in the final minute of the first half, but Wyatt Bryan missed a 46-yard field goal as the clock expired to preserve a 17-7 lead for the Gophers.
Minnesota: The Gophers were far from flawless, particularly on defense while giving up 11 gains of 15-plus yards, but they did precisely what they needed to do by entering conference play unscathed.
Colorado State: Hill finished 15 for 30 for 182 yards and one touchdown with an interception and a fumble that led to 14 points for Minnesota, after a sharp debut against FCS foe Northern Colorado. The experience playing at a Big Ten stadium ought to help his development.
Emmit Carpenter, who has not missed a kick this season, made a 28-yard field goal in the second quarter. That’s the only time in 14 trips inside the 20-yard line the Gophers haven’t crossed the goal line.
“Once you get down there, it’s tough to stop Rodney, Shannon and Kobe,” Leidner said. “That’s a lot of horsepower coming at you.”
FEELING THE PRESSURE
Steven Richardson, who had four of Minnesota’s 14 tackles for loss, sacked Hill on the first play from scrimmage. Hill absorbed several hard hits on the afternoon, none more jarring than the sack by Tai’yon Devers that knocked the ball loose and his helmet off to give the Gophers possession at the Colorado State 33.
Devers, one of four true freshmen who played on defense, has forced a fumble on all three of his sacks just 2½ games into his college career.
“Collin hadn’t played any speed like that,” Bobo said.
Colorado State: The Rams host Wyoming in their Mountain West opener for the Bronze Boot, the trophy that has gone to CSU for three straight years. This game is the only trip for the Rams outside of Colorado for the first six weeks of the season.
Minnesota: The Gophers play their first Big Ten game at Penn State. Minnesota is 2-4 there all time, having last visited in 2009 and last won in 2003.