Minneapolis — Rodney Smith rushed 17 times for 99 yards and two touchdowns to help Minnesota wear down Colorado State on the way to a 31-24 victory on Saturday.
Shannon Brooks, the team’s leading rusher last year, returned from a broken foot that kept him out of the first two games and netted 85 yards and a score on 13 carries for the Gophers (3-0).
“They’re both awfully good,” coach Tracy Claeys said of his sophomore tailback tandem, “so it doesn’t matter which way it ends up.”
The Gophers didn’t need much from Kobe McCrary, who rushed for 13 yards on four carries.
“The defense is keeping their same guys out there, and we’re getting three different backs in there that are fresh and really running through guys,” said quarterback Mitch 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.
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.
Leidner ran the ball 10 times for 50 yards and a touchdown, looking as spry as ever after suffering foot injuries in each of the last two Septembers that hampered his sophomore and junior seasons.
“He’s a big reason why we’re having the success we are on offense,” Claeys said.
The Rams were worried enough about the speed of Minnesota’s outside rush that coach Mike Bobo put wide receivers on the scout team at defensive end for a better test in practice this week for his blockers. On the first play from scrimmage, defensive tackle Steven Richardson charged into the backfield for a 10-yard sack.
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-yard line following the recovery by Gaelin Elmore. Devers, a freshman from Pompano Beach, Florida, has forced a fumble on all three of his sacks just 2½ games into his college career.
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,” Bobo said.