Kirkwood Carries The Load

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By Michael Molde, Athletic Communications

It's said that a sound running game creates opportunities for a passing game to flourish. In the past two weeks, quarterback Max Shortell has established new career-bests for passing yards, combining to throw for 419 yards and three TDs since taking over for the injured MarQueis Gray in the second quarter of last week's win versus Western Michigan.

But the guy who has handled the bulk of the rushing duties for the undefeated Gophers is redshirt sophomore running back Donnell Kirkwood.

The 5-foot-10, 219-pounder from Delray Beach, Fla. (Atlantic HS) just missed having back-to-back 100-yard rushing games, as he carried the ball a career-high 28 times for 99 net yards and both of Minnesota's touchdowns in the 17-10 victory against Syracuse (1-3). In last week's win over WMU, he had rushed 23 times for a career-high 110 yards.

"I like to run power football," Kirkwood said of tonight's performance. "It felt good. I knew I was doing something positive tonight."

The two touchdowns Kirkwood scored matched the pair he tallied in last year's loss to North Dakota State. He said he took a can't-be-stopped mentality when scoring on runs of two yards in the first quarter and one yard in the third quarter, which allowed the Gophers to stretch their winning streak to five games for the first time since week four of the 2005 season.

"We have a mentality down there that we will not be stopped when we run goal line," Kirkwood said. "The offensive line knows it. The quarterback knows it. The receivers know it. When we run goal line, we have a mentality that we will get in. That is how we think, and that is how we are going to think for the rest of the year."

Although Kirkwood has logged career-highs for rushing attempts in back-to-back weeks, and Shortell's passing is what gets the most attention, he said the guy the team calls "Big Country" can run the ball when he needs to.

"Max can run the ball. He is not a MarQueis, but he can run the ball," Kirkwood said. "It is just a game plan that you have to go with. I don't really know how many carries I am going to get before the game. I just go out there and do my assignment and do what I have to do."

What he's done is produce. In four games, Kirkwood has 81 rushing attempts for 361 net yards, an average of 4.5 yards per carry. And his three touchdowns this season already equals the three he scored during 2011.

Shortell said that Kirkwood does more than just tote the ball for the Gophers. He helps keep the team loose with his personality.

"Me and Donnell have a great relationship," Shortell said. "We crack jokes in the huddle all the time and keep each other focused and just relaxed."

Whatever those jokes are, they've been working well, and Minnesota heads to Iowa City next weekend with an unblemished record in search of its third-straight victory against the Hawkeyes.

It just seems right that a guy named "Big Country" should keep watch over a pig named Floyd for another year. His friend Donnell will try to help him carry the load and keep the Gophers' successful streak going as they head into Big Ten play.

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