On Saturday night, the Gophers celebrated a thrilling 21-14 victory over Fresno State, a game in which they rallied late in the fourth quarter and turned back the Bulldogs with an end zone interception with 1:18 to play.
On Monday afternoon, the Gophers found out the price of that victory.
Senior running back Rodney Smith, who suffered a left knee injury early in the game, will miss the remainder of the season, coach P.J. Fleck confirmed.
“I am devastated for Rodney, but I know he will keep his oar in the water and continue to move forward and attack his rehabilitation process,” Fleck said in a statement. “He is a leader on this team, and I look forward to him working with our young players as we continue to grow this season.”
Fleck added that the Gophers will file a for medical hardship waiver for a sixth year of eligibility for Smith once the season is over. The coach said he believes Smith, a fifth-year senior who redshirted in 2014, meets all the requirements for the waiver. Fleck said he fully expects that the NCAA will grant the waiver.
Smith, the Gophers’ MVP the past two seasons and the leading returning career rusher in the Big Ten entering the season, has rushed for 2,959 yards in his career and has 4,073 all-purpose yards. Both figures rank seventh in school history. He had 189 all-purpose yards in the Gophers’ season-opening 48-10 win over New Mexico State and gained 34 on three touches vs. Fresno State.
Smith was injured on the game’s third offensive play when he caught a screen pass and gained 11 yards for a first down, made a cut, was tackled and stayed on the turf in pain. Trainers tended to him on the field, examining his left knee, and helped him to the sideline, with Smith putting little weight on his left leg. He then was examined in the medical tent on the sideline.
Smith, who also tore the ACL in his right knee as a junior in high school, returned to the sideline in a warm-up suit in the second half, walking with a limp and encouraging teammates.
So, who’s next at running back?
With injuries to Smith, senior Shannon Brooks and redshirt freshman Mohamed Ibrahim, the Gophers are down to their fourth option, true freshman Bryce Williams.
Williams, a 6-2, 200-pounder out of Cardinal Mooney High School in Sarasota, Fla., took over for Smith on Saturday and rushed 25 times for 87 yards. He gained 62 yards on his first 21 carries before coming on strong during the Gophers’ winning drive. Williams had consecutive rushes of 9, 3, 11 and 2 yards from the Fresno State 28 to the 3 that set up Seth Green’s go-ahead touchdown run.
“Bryce Williams, as the game went on, got better and better and better,” Fleck said Sunday on WCCO Radio.
Ibrahim, Smith’s backup in the season opener, suffered a left leg injury late in that game on a 74-yard run. He dressed for the Fresno State game but did not play. Fleck indicated Sunday that he’s hopeful that Ibrahim will return for Saturday’s game against Miami (Ohio).
Green gave the Gophers a boost Saturday, especially in short-yardage and goal-line situations, with 11 rushes for 30 yards and two TDs out of the wildcat formation.
An intriguing option at some point this season might be Brooks, who has rushed for 1,728 yards in his career while splitting carries with Smith. Brooks suffered a torn ACL shortly before spring practice that Fleck originally considered to be season-ending. But the NCAA changed its redshirt rules, allowing a player to participate in up to four games without losing a year of eligibility, and Fleck said during Big Ten media days in late July that Brooks might return this season.
In late August, Fleck said Brooks was at least a few weeks from returning.
The loss of the popular Smith will sting for the Gophers, both on and off the field.
“Ever since I got here he’s always been a leader, he’s always been a guy to help the younger guys even when he was a younger guy,” senior safety Jacob Huff said in August. “… When he’s taking a rep, I want to be that guy taking a rep against him, because that’s the best running back in the Big Ten in my eyes.”