MINNEAPOLIS — David Cobb was coming off the first 1,000-yard season for a Minnesota running back in seven years, but he wasn't satisfied. So he hit the weights even harder, followed a more disciplined diet and returned for his senior season in even better shape.
The hard work might have only begun.
Cobb had 29 carries for two touchdowns and a career-high 220 yards, the most for the program in nine years, and the Golden Gophers outlasted Middle Tennessee for a 35-24 victory on Saturday.
"It's hard to take him off the field when he gets hot," coach Jerry Kill said, adding: "I feel like he's faster than he was a year ago."
Donnell Kirkwood also had a first-quarter touchdown run for the Gophers (2-0), who rushed for 284 yards but again had trouble moving the ball through the air. Mitch Leidner threw a pretty 27-yard touchdown pass to tight end Maxx Williams in the second quarter immediately after Damien Wilson's interception, but he completed just 5 of 11 passes for 67 yards and was picked off in the end zone right before halftime.
Then he got hurt.
Leidner walked gingerly off the field at the end of a drive early in the fourth quarter after a lineman was pushed into his leg during a follow-through on a throw, and he had his left knee examined on the sideline. Leidner was walking back and forth without trouble after that, but with the Gophers holding an 18-point lead freshman Chris Streveler took over at quarterback. Kill said he's concerned.
"We'll see what happens with the quarterbacks and things, but it's going to be real important for David to continue what he's doing," Kill said.
With Cobb rumbling through the line, deftly reading the defense and breaking tackles down the field, another uneven passing performance didn't affect the Gophers. Cobb was the first 200-yard rusher for the Gophers since Amir Pinnix on Nov. 12, 2005, against Michigan State. Cobb's total was the highest since Laurence Maroney had 258 yards against Wisconsin on Oct. 15, 2005.
"He runs behind his pads, and he runs behind some really big guys too. He's a hard back to tackle," Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill said.
With fifth-year senior Kirkwood, bruiser Rodrick Williams and flashy freshman Berkley Edwards, the Gophers are deep in the backfield. But this is Cobb's show, and the senior from Killeen, Texas, is just getting going with eight career starts. He took over the featured role by midseason and finished 2013 with 1,202 yards.
"I need to borrow probably $300 from the athletic director to take the O-line out to eat," Cobb said jokingly, before crediting the tight ends and wide receivers for their down-field blocking, too. "When they do it like that, the holes open up and everything's easy."
Reggie Whatley scored twice for the Blue Raiders (1-1) while rushing for 84 yards on 14 attempts, but despite 255 yards on 22-for-38 passing Austin Grammer was picked off three times. Jalen Myrick returned one for a score.
Grammer was at fault for only one of the interceptions. His intended receiver ran into an official and stumbled before Myrick's pick. Thieren Cockran grabbed Grammer's arm as he threw on the next series, and Wilson caught the ball that went straight up in the air.
Stockstill was elated by the way the Blue Raiders played after falling behind 28-0 late in the second quarter. They had too many penalties (nine for 80 yards) and missed a 41-yard field goal but outplayed Minnesota for most of the second half. Grammer, after a 61-7 win over FCS foe Savannah State last week in his first career start, found a rhythm while the Blue Raiders were trying to catch up.
"Every snap it just gets easier and easier. I love this team. They make it easy for me," Grammer said.
Kill said he thought the Gophers lost some intensity after halftime. They've been playing a lot of freshmen on defense, too, with injuries in the front seven.
"We can't make this an ongoing process of giving up points in the second half after shutting people out in the first half. Let's go ahead and play a full game," Myrick said.
Whether or not Leidner is healthy, the Gophers are going to be a power-running team. So Cobb has plenty of full games left to play himself.
"We wanted to throw the ball a little more," Cobb said, "but today we kind of got into a rhythm running so that's what we stuck to."