Minnesota makes crowded backfield work

David Cobb hated seeing Donnell Kirkwood get carted off the field in the second half of Minnesota's opener last month. But he knew his number was going to get called.

"You can't hang your head," Cobb said. "The next man up steps up."

Cobb then broke off a 60-yard run in the fourth quarter of the rout of UNLV. He and the rest of the backfield have since embodied the next-in-line philosophy throughout the Golden Gophers' 4-0 start. They enter their Big Ten opener Saturday with the nation's No. 13 rushing offense (282.3 ypg), and they know the physical test that awaits them against Iowa in the battle for the Floyd of Rosedale Trophy.

The junior Cobb has led the charge, rushing for 332 yards and five touchdowns, while averaging 6.3 yards per carry. But fellow Texan Rodrick Williams Jr. has been more than just a complementary piece, tallying 277 yards and three scores himself while averaging 6.2 yards per rush.

And then there is Mitch Leidner, he of the 151-yard, four-score performance on the ground last Saturday in his first career start.

"If one man is hot [coach] leaves him in," Cobb said. "The next man steps up. Our quarterbacks run great. The O-line has been doing a great job getting a push. It really makes it easy for us. Really it's whoever's the hot hand at the time -- he gets the green light, he goes and he runs up."

Kirkwood, a redshirt junior, was coming off a 926-yard season for Minnesota last season before suffering an ankle injury in Week 1 against the Rebels. He had accounted for three of the Gophers' four individual 100-yard rushing efforts in 2012.

Minnesota has already matched that total through four games this season — with four different players accounting for each 100-yard rushing performance. Arkansas State is the only other FBS team with four individual 100-yard rushing performances this season, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Williams and quarterback Philip Nelson each broke the century mark for the Gophers in Week 2, with Cobb and Leidner doing the same last weekend.

"I think that's the way we played at Northern Illinois, and then we come here and that's been kind of our nature through our coaching career, to be physical and take care of the football and run it and play-action pass, etc.," coach Jerry Kill said. "That's what we're trying to do, but we've got to physically continue to get stronger and bigger and so forth, and that's what we're tying to do through recruiting, but we are making some progress in that."

With neither Kirkwood nor Nelson expected back this weekend, it will again be Cobb and Leidner leading the ground attack against the Hawkeyes, who forced four turnovers in the 2012 meeting while dealing the Gophers their first loss.

Williams, a sophomore, landed an Iowa offer two years ago shortly before telling the staff that he was also intrigued by a rival of theirs.

"I told them that I was interested in Minnesota," Williams said. "They laughed and told me I'm not going to win."

He will get the chance to prove them wrong Saturday.