12:00 PM ET, November 12, 2005
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Like shoving quarters into a slot machine, Minnesota rarely runs out of quality running backs.
And the Gophers never really have to leave anything to chance. With an offensive line as good as theirs, they almost always reap the rewards of their nation-leading ground game.
"It's nice to have the kind of depth at running back that our team has," said guard Mark Setterstrom, one of 16 seniors who played their final home game. "We have confidence that any one of our running backs can step in and do well for us."
Dominant blocking sure helps.
"They kicked our tail today. That's the best offensive front we've seen on tape and played against this year," Spartans coach John L. Smith said.
Maroney, whose 1,345 yards were the most in the conference coming into the week, went through warmups for the Gophers (7-3, 4-3) -- but stood and watched all afternoon without his shoulder pads on while Pinnix and Russell wore down Michigan State (5-5, 2-5). Maroney got hurt the week before in a win at Indiana.
Russell started at tailback and gained 85 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries, playing only in the first half because of a hard hit he took to the head. Pinnix rushed 32 times for 206 yards -- both career highs -- and had a fourth-quarter score.
"Running backs get the shine and the glory," Pinnix said, "but all the glory should go to the line."
While their opponents were busy with all those congratulations, the Spartans were sorting out their fifth loss in the last six games.
"I think maybe in times like this we press and try to do too much, because we're trying to find ways to get back to the way we were playing," said Drew Stanton, who went 29-for-46 for 312 yards and fourth-quarter touchdown passes to Dwayne Holmes and Terry Love.
Most of that yardage was meaningless, though, once Minnesota had built a comfortable lead. Michigan State, which ranked as high as 11th in the AP poll after winning its first four, dropped six passes in the first half -- including two in a row by Love in the second quarter. The first one glanced off his outstretched hands at the 10-yard line in a 14-3 game and would have gone for a 51-yard touchdown.
The Spartans also committed eight penalties, including a holding call on tackle Stefon Wheeler at the end of the second quarter after an 11-yard run by Stanton ended at the Gophers' 13-yard line. Instead, the ball was moved back to the 34, and Matt Haughey's 51-yard field goal was blocked as time expired -- preserving a 21-3 advantage for Minnesota. That was Haughey's second blocked kick of the half.
"We're not as mentally tough as we need to be. You've got to do something positive to gain confidence," Smith said, "and we haven't been able to do that."
"That was probably our best team game of the year," Cupito said. "It's a great offense we have. It just shows what great coaches we have, and they have the right players for the system."
The Gophers average nearly 300 yards rushing per game, and their offensive line -- led by four-year starters Setterstrom and Greg Eslinger -- is just as responsible for that as Maroney and his cohorts.
The ground game didn't miss a beat with Russell, who moved within 33 yards of 1,000 for the season, which would make Minnesota the first team in major college history to have two runners reach that milestone for three straight years. Maroney accomplished it with Marion Barber III the past two seasons.
"They showed us everything that they've been doing the past couple of weeks, but they're just so good at it," Spartans linebacker David Herron Jr. said.
Russell, who also had 68 yards receiving, was leveled by Spartans strong safety Eric Smith while trying to catch a pass up the seam late in the second quarter. He was woozy when he got up, stumbled off the field and missed nine plays before returning and polishing off an 18-play, 80-yard drive with a 1-yard plunge.
That was Russell's 17th rushing touchdown this year, tying him with Barber for the school record.
Also a sophomore, Pinnix picked it up from there and carried 25 times in the second half -- accounting for all but six of the Gophers' offensive plays. They held the ball for nearly 36½ of the game's 60 minutes and converted 14 of 17 third-down situations.
Already assured of a bowl game, Minnesota visits Iowa next week to close the regular season. Michigan State, however, needs to beat No. 6 Penn State to be postseason-eligible.
"We can't quit," center Chris Morris said. "We've got too much to play for."