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During the 2021 and 2022 football seasons, the Gophers were a team that lived and died with their running game. Their 46.3 carries per game in 2021 ranked sixth nationally, and their 44.7 average last year was the eighth most.

Conversely, their 21.6 passes per game in 2022 and 19.8 in 2021 ranked 126th and 127th, respectively, among the 131 Football Bowl Subdivision programs.

So when the Gophers passed the ball 44 times and called only 25 rushes in the season-opening 13-10 victory over Nebraska on Thursday night, observers and fans did a double-take.

"Throwing it 44 times probably is shocking to a lot of people, but that's what was required to win that particular game," Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said Monday, reviewing the win over the Cornhuskers and looking ahead to Saturday night's home game against Eastern Michigan.

Several factors led to the decision to turn away from the run. Aside from a kneel-down by Minnesota at the end of the first half, the Gophers and Nebraska each had only three first-half possessions, so the number of offensive plays was limited. And when the Cornhuskers took a 7-3 lead in the third quarter, Fleck said he believed the passing game gave his team the best chance to win, especially since the Gophers rushed for only 12 yards in the second quarter and 7 in the third. For the game, the Gophers netted only 55 yards on those 25 carries.

Nebraska's 3-3-5 defensive alignment and its multiple looks caused problems for the Gophers. Minnesota faced that approach in the 28-20 Pinstripe Bowl victory over Syracuse in December. The difference, Fleck said, was that the Orange had 260-pound defensive linemen and the Huskers had guys weighing 320 and 330 up front.

"If you sit there and think we're just going to pound Nebraska, just run the ball down their throat, I don't know how much success you're gonna have with how big and how deep they are up front," Fleck said. "… But we want to be better in that area."

The Gophers no longer have Mohamed Ibrahim, the program's career leading rusher, and John Michael Schmitz, an All-America center poised to start as an NFL rookie. On Thursday, Fleck went with a committee approach at running back, with Western Michigan transfer Sean Tyler leading the team with 41 yards on 10 carries, including an important 11-yarder late in the fourth quarter to set up Dragan Kesich's winning 47-yard field goal. Senior Bryce Williams (six carries, 14 yards) and true freshman Darius Taylor (one carry, 3 yards) were the only other running backs to run the ball.

"We felt really good with Sean and what he was able to bring, plus Bryce Williams with the experience," Fleck said of his decision on who carried the ball. "We felt really good about those two backs who have played a lot of football."

Against Nebraska, the Gophers started Aireontae Ersery and Quinn Carroll at tackle, Tyler Cooper and Martes Lewis at guard, and Nathan Boe at center. Fleck hinted there could be more of a rotation for the Eastern Michigan game.

"We've got seven, eight guys who can play, and we've got four guys who have solidified themselves as starters," Fleck said of the offensive line group. "We'll do what we have to do in practice and keep evaluating and see what that guard position looks like and go from there, but I have confidence in all the guys. It's just who's going to do it better."

The Gophers gave up three sacks against the Cornhuskers, and Fleck knows that needs to improve. "We've got to keep our quarterback upright," he said.

A more productive running game would help in that regard, but Fleck sees no aspect of his team that can't improve.

"It doesn't matter which position we're talking about," he said, "we all just need to be more efficient and more consistent in everything that we do."