MINNEAPOLIS — After the Minnesota Golden Gophers secured a win over rival Michigan late last month, they had a chance to revel in the victory for a week without having to prepare for a new opponent right away. This past Saturday’s bye week came at a good time for that.
It also was good timing for running back David Cobb, arguably the Gophers’ offensive MVP through five games this year. Minnesota’s offense has relied heavily on the run, which means the Gophers have relied heavily on Cobb.
Only four running backs in Division I football have tallied more carries than the 124 rushes that Cobb has to this point, and all four of them — Buffalo’s Anthone Taylor (159 carries), Pitt’s James Conner (156), Jay Ajayi (142) of Boise State and Nebraska star Ameer Abdullah (138) — have done so in one more game than Cobb. Averaging 24.8 carries per game, Cobb has been the third-busiest back in the nation behind Taylor (26.5) and Conner (26).
The increased workload doesn’t seem to be bothering Cobb one bit. In fact, he’s relishing his role as Minnesota’s every-down back.
"I haven’t played that much, so I’m kind of fresh still," said Cobb, a senior who didn’t start until midway through his junior season. "It’s not so much the carries. Sometimes I don’t get touched until I reach the safety. At 30 carries, I’m not really getting banged up until about 10 of them."
It’s true that Cobb was underutilized during his first two years on campus. As a freshman in 2011 he played in just three games and finished the year with a mere 10 carries. His sophomore year was even less busy. One carry for eight yards was all he had to his name during the 2012 season.
In Cobb’s eyes, a lack of hits and carries during his first two years has helped keep him fresher for his senior year — and likely his second consecutive 1,000-yard season. His head coach, however, doesn’t necessarily agree with that theory.
"When you play tailback, you’re never going to be fresh," said Jerry Kill. "If you carry the ball in this league, whether it’s 15 times, 30 times a game, you’re going to take some shots. . . . The positions that touch that ball a whole lot — receivers, most of them, even in a throwing game get eight, 10, 12 at the most, where a back is going to get it 18, 20, 25 times, and a quarterback’s going to get it about 70, 80 snaps. Those guys sometimes come out of games and it takes them a while to get ready for the next game."
The extra carries haven’t seemed to affect Cobb’s productivity one bit. He’s now had back-to-back games with 30 or more carries after having just one 30-carry game all of last year. Cobb gained 207 yards on a career-high — and, he estimates, a lifetime high — 34 carries against San Jose State and followed that up with 32 rushes for 183 yards against a previously stingy Michigan defense.
Cobb believed the latter was his best game yet, given not only the significance of the game against a rival but also because of his 50 receiving yards, the most he’s ever had with the Gophers.
"I think that was one of my better games I’ve ever played, even in high school," Cobb said. "I think it was just an all-around game from the receiving end to pass protection to running the ball. I got into a pretty good rhythm and I felt like I had a pretty good balance and was able to break a couple of tackles."
Through five games, Cobb has now rushed for 722 yards, the seventh-most in Division I. After the same number of games during last year’s 1,202-yard season, Cobb had just 352 yards on the ground as he slowly climbed his way up the Gophers’ depth chart from third-string to starter.
Cobb’s transformation into one of the Big Ten’s top backs has been a big reason why Minnesota is 4-1.
"It’s really cool to watch. At the same time, I knew it all along and everybody on this team knew it all along," Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner said of Cobb’s development. "Ever since he was a freshman, he’s been one of the most talented guys on this team. He’s tough to bring down, and he’s shifty. Just a really excellent player."
As Minnesota now prepares for Northwestern this Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, there’s little doubt that Cobb will be called upon early and often to carry the ball for the Gophers as they look to get win No. 5.
If he has to run the ball 30 times once again, that would be just fine with him.
Said Cobb: "I’m OK with whatever it takes to win."