Gophers running back Donnell Kirkwood noticed something about Texas Tech’s defense as he watched tape to prepare for Minnesota’s bowl game on Friday. What Kirkwood saw from the Red Raiders had him licking his chops in anticipation.
“They’re not used to power. Not at all,” Kirkwood said of Texas Tech’s run defense. “We want to kind of introduce them to a style of the Big Ten that they haven’t seen before.”
Indeed, Texas Tech’s rushing defense was suspect at times in 2012, especially in the final several games of the season. The Red Raiders allowed 171.4 rushing yards per game, putting them in the bottom half of Big 12 teams in terms of stopping the run. Those numbers are skewed slightly thanks to Texas Tech’s win over Northwestern State as they held the Demons to just 13 yards rushing on 28 attempts.
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In their last four games leading up to this week’s bowl game, the Red Raiders allowed a combined 1,087 yards against Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma State and Baylor. Kansas ran for a whopping 390 yards in a double-overtime loss to Texas Tech, while Baylor’s 278 rushing yards also came in an overtime game.
Those teams don’t employ the same running style as the Gophers, however. Even to the casual observer, Big Ten football and Big 12 football are two different animals. Minnesota is among many teams in the Big Ten that line up under center and pound the ball up the middle. In the Big 12, most teams use a spread offense, often going no-huddle.
Because of the way Big 12 teams run their offenses, Texas Tech hasn’t seen much this season of the ground-and-pound style used by the Big Ten.
“I think that a lot of times, what you see at the end of the day is defenses are built to stop their own offense, because that’s who you see the most,” said Minnesota offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. “Plus, the Big 12 — when you look at Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Baylor, even Iowa State — they all spread it out. So you have to have speed on the field, linebackers have got to be able to run. You have lighter guys that rush the passer. They just don’t see a lot of downhill kind of Big Ten type of attacks. We’re going to try to use that to our advantage a little bit and see what happens.”
For the Gophers to exploit that, the key will be to get Kirkwood going. The 5-foot-10, 219-pound sophomore led Minnesota with 849 rushing yards on 199 carries (4.3 yards per carry). He also found the end zone five times, tied with quarterback/wide receiver MarQueis Gray for most rushing touchdowns on the team.
When Kirkwood had success this season, so too did Minnesota. In the Gophers’ six losses, Kirkwood averaged just 33.7 yards per game. In Minnesota’s six wins, Kirkwood carried the ball for an average of 107.8 yards per game.
“When you look back, when he’s had the most success, when you’re talking about Syracuse and Illinois and really even Purdue is when we got him in the ‘I’ and went downhill with him,” Limegrover said. “That’s something that we’re looking to continue that trend and feel like that’s a good matchup for us, with a guy like him and Rodrick Williams in the backfield.”
Williams is a 5-foot-11, 228-pound freshman who didn’t make his college debut until Week 6 against Northwestern, but he eventually provided a change of pace for the Gophers’ rushing game and took some of the load off Kirkwood. Williams finished the year with just 45 carries but averaged 4.5 yards per run and scored a touchdown in Minnesota’s 44-28 win over Purdue — a game in which he and Kirkwood combined for 177 rushing yards.
In the Gophers’ regular-season finale against Michigan State, they ran the ball for just four yards. Yes, four. Kirkwood had 19 yards on 10 carries, but quarterbacks Max Shortell and Philip Nelson combined to lose 20.
That surely won’t fly against Texas Tech. If the Gophers can get the ground game going, they’ll have a chance to not only gain some yards on the ground but also chew up the clock and keep the Red Raiders’ high-powered passing attack on the sideline.
“It’s a challenge for us in the fact that we’re going to have to play like we did against Syracuse and Purdue to win a bowl game. That’s how we’re going to have to play,” said Gophers head coach Jerry Kill. “They’re going to try to get the extra guy in the box. We’re going to have to hit some plays against them. The games that we’ve won and have been successful in, we’ve been able to do that. The games we haven’t, we haven’t been successful doing it. It’s going to be important. I really feel like we’ve got to have some big plays.”