The third quarter drive that cut Mohamed Ibrahim’s season short in Minnesota’s season-opening loss to Ohio State ended in a 46-yard field goal to cut the Buckeyes’ lead to 31-24. But to be honest with you, the fact that the Gophers had made it a seven-point game against the No. 4 team in the country was the furthest thing from my mind. I couldn’t shake the sight of Ibrahim dropping to the turf after trying (and failing) to limp to the sideline.
The Gophers came into this season with question marks on both sides of the ball, but Ibrahim was an exclamation point. The reigning Big Ten Running Back of the Year was unstoppable last year, leading the league with 1,076 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns despite Minnesota being limited to seven games. He was to be the centerpiece of the Gophers’ offense.
He is not the most elusive back and his speed is nothing to write home about, but Ibrahim is the perfect fit for the Gophers’ zone blocking scheme. He presses the line of scrimmage, shows patience as the play develops, and makes the proper read. Ibrahim also has good contact balance and a lower center of gravity at the point of attack, helping him to run through arm tackles and bounce off of potential tacklers to pick up extra yards, extend drives, and control the clock.
Now that it has been made official that he’ll miss the rest of the season, it’s safe to say Minnesota’s offense won’t be the same without him.
But the unfortunate circumstances the Gophers are faced with now are remarkably similar to the circumstances that first opened the door for Ibrahim.
Just three years ago, starting running back Rodney Smith tore his ACL two games into the season. Minnesota was already missing Shannon Brooks, who had suffered his own ACL tear the previous December. With their top two running backs sidelined, the Gophers turned to an unheralded redshirt freshman who had only seen action in one game up to that point. That redshirt freshman went on to rush for 1,160 yards and nine rushing touchdowns.
Now the tables have turned and Minnesota must replace that redshirt freshman after watching him to evolve into an All-American. More than a few fans have been quick to write off the rest of the Gophers’ running back because none of them have established themselves up to this point, but those fans would do well to remember the story of David Cobb.
Entering the 2013 season, Cobb’s career at Minnesota had not amounted to much. In the previous two seasons, he had played in a combined total of eight games and recorded only 11 carries for 65 rushing yards. Cobb rushed for a then career-best 125 yards in the fourth game of the season against San Jose State, before being limited to a combined 42 rushing yards on 15 carries in successive games against Iowa and Michigan. He helped spark a four-game winning streak from there, rushing for more than 100 yards in each game.
One year later, Cobb broke the school’s single-season rushing record.
In his postgame press conference Thursday, Fleck declined to get into specifics regarding Ibrahim’s injury, but he did make one thing clear: “Whatever it is, we’ll figure it out and we’ll row.” That’s really all you can do. Ibrahim isn’t coming back this season, so you can either dwell on what’s been lost or put your oar back in the water and keep rowing. I can guarantee there are five running backs on this roster who are going to do the latter. There’s no guarantee any of them will be up to the challenge, but Ibrahim and Cobb are proof you’d be better off reserving judgement.