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Gophers want to keep attacking from ground

Gophers running back Duane Bennett, front, runs the ball against Middle Tennessee State last Thursday in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (Associated Press)

By Dave Campbell, AP Sports Writer

MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota has made several coaching changes on offense over the last two years, trying to become more like the power running teams the Big Ten has traditionally been built around.

Coming off a weak performance in 2009, the Gophers got off to a strong start in their season opener. Against a much-smaller Middle Tennessee team, they totaled 281 yards rushing on 67 attempts.

"I didn't find it boring at all," coach Tim Brewster said Tuesday. "I think it was the most beautiful thing I've seen in a long time. It's really exciting."

The Gophers host South Dakota on Saturday.

"I hope we can run it more," center D.J. Burris said. "I love how we set our goal to run the football, and that's exactly what we did. We were all prepared for it, and we didn't shy away from what we were going to do."

More experience can only help this line, but the players are also quick to praise the simplified scheme brought in by new offensive coordinator Jeff Horton.

"You could definitely tell even starting back in spring ball," Burris said. "I feel like this offensive line just really bonded together. You could tell there were times when we'd look at each other and say, 'Hey, let's get this play working.' We were always playing for each other, the people that were in that huddle."

Tailback Duane Bennett led the charge with 187 yards, appearing fully recovered from the left knee injury that knocked him out two years ago and required reconstructive surgery. He carried the ball 30 times and told Brewster after the game he felt fresh enough to take 10 more.

True freshman Donnell Kirkwood also got in for 50 yards on 12 rushes, and DeLeon Eskridge went for 40 yards on 11 tries. Throwing in fullback Jon Hoese, who rushed for three touchdowns, the Gophers backs accumulated 301 yards between them.

They held the ball for 45 minutes, 34 seconds, according to sports researcher STATS LLC, a gawdy time-of-possession number that leads the nation -- both the FBS and FCS divisions. Though school records for this category only go back to 1983, the team believes it's the most in program history.

"It was just a great vibe to have after the game," Bennett said.

He had only 376 yards rushing last season. That led the team.

Bennett's comeback was complete this spring when his body, specifically his legs, responded to an arduous offseason of weightlifting and running and produced a solid series of practices and scrimmages.

"That was a true testament of when I felt like everything was going to fall into place where it needed to be," Bennett said. "I just wanted to be there for my teammates so I really worked hard."

For Brewster, the moment came against Middle Tennessee. Bennett took the ball on the first play of scrimmage, got hit at about 6 yards -- and gained 32.

"I think that said a lot about what Duane was going to be about. He's an extremely determined young guy," the coach said. "He's not going to take any backward steps. He's going to keep pushing forward."

Said quarterback Adam Weber: "I've always seen glimpses of Duane like this. I know it's just been a matter of time. I know last year was frustrating for him, but he worked so hard. He got his knee back, and now watching him play it's a lot of fun because he's a phenomenal running back and a phenomenal leader on this team."

NOTES: With Dom Alford still suspended indefinitely for an unspecified violation of team rules, Ed Olson will start again at left tackle with Chris Bunders, Burris, Matt Carufel and Jeff Wills entrenched in the other spots. ... In the secondary, safety Kyle Theret is also still suspended, and Kim Royston's status is still iffy until he can participate in a full practice on his surgically repaired left leg. Christyn Lewis and James Manuel are starting in their place.