A steady stream of injuries to the program’s running back corps has prompted Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck to diversify his lineup, inserting players from other position groups into the offensive backfield.
While he wouldn’t name names, Fleck said to expect more of the same shuffling as the Golden Gophers aim to remain atop the Big Ten West when they host conference rival Illinois on Saturday. He also lauded the resiliency of Minnesota (6-2, 4-1 Big Ten), which enters on a four-game winning streak.
“I’m proud of our guys for developing on Sundays,” Fleck said. “It’s a lot of work that we do with them to get them ready for that because they’re all playing different positions, as well.”
Fleck confirmed Monday that Bryce Williams suffered a season-ending injury to his lower left leg during the team’s 41-14 road rout of Northwestern on Oct. 30. That follows previous injuries to Mohamed Ibrahim (lower left leg) and Trey Potts, who was hospitalized for nearly a week with an undisclosed injury.
Freshmen Mar’Keise Irving and Ky Thomas are Minnesota’s lone healthy scholarship running backs, and both surpassed 100 yards at Northwestern. Still, the Golden Gophers have been forced to be creative in order to foster depth. The latest display: Linebacker Derik LeCaptain gained 31 yards on three carries at Northwestern, including a 24-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter.
Illinois (3-6, 2-4) hopes to limit a Golden Gophers attack that averages 222.3 rushing yards a game, second in the conference.
The Fighting Illini are coming off a frustrating, 20-14 home loss to Rutgers on the heels of a 20-18 win at then-No. 7 Penn State in nine overtimes the previous week. Illinois sputtered down the stretch after building a 14-10 halftime lead.
Quarterback Brandon Peters went 14-for-19 passing for 190 yards and two touchdowns, but Illinois mustered just 107 yards on the ground.
“Huge emphasis the last several weeks on trying to score early,” coach Bret Bielema said. “I think it’s an obstacle that we’ve been trying to work ourselves through; we just haven’t been able to overcome it.”
Illinois, which has limited opponents to 24 points or fewer in six straight games, has not won at Minnesota since 2009.
–Field Level Media