MINNEAPOLIS — With a senior-laden lineup led by running back Mo Ibrahim, Minnesota entered the season with a prime opportunity to bounce back from a rough year and compete with rivals Wisconsin and Iowa for the West Division title.
One week in, the Gophers have already been handed a major setback.
Ibrahim will miss the rest of the season because of a lower left leg injury, coach P.J. Fleck announced. The fifth-year player from Baltimore will have surgery Tuesday and need four to six months to recover. He was a second-team preseason Associated Press All-America selection.
“This isn’t like you can just say, `OK, we’ll just put the next guy in.’ You can’t do that. He’s such a special player, and I think he’s the best back in the country for a lot of reasons. One of the biggest reasons is he’s an unbelievable person, the hardest worker on this team, the heartbeat of the team,” said Fleck, who declined to specify the injury but said Ibrahim sustained a tear.
The severity suggested an Achilles tendon. Ibrahim was hurt on the second-to-last play of the third quarter Thursday against fourth-ranked Ohio State, when he ran to the right side for 1 yard and tried to escape a tackle by safety Ronnie Hickman. After Ibrahim planted his left foot, slow-motion replays on the Fox broadcast showed his leg react as if something had popped inside.
“The specific part, I always leave up to the kids. Not that I’m hiding information. Everybody can watch the video, see it a million times and create your own assumptions,” Fleck said. “I just think there’s something personal to the injury, the exact, specific part.”
Ibrahim gave the Gophers the lead with his touchdown runs and set up their first score with a 56-yard run on fourth-and-1 from their 29. They were ahead 21-17 with 5:20 remaining in the third quarter before the Buckeyes pulled away for good.
Gearing up for a heavy dose of carries for their workhorse, the ground-oriented Gophers tried to keep Ibrahim fresh throughout spring and summer practices.
“But it’s football. You can’t control the injuries when you get onto the field and you’re playing in games,” Fleck said, describing Ibrahim’s outlook as “completely optimistic” even after their postgame conversation when it was clear he was seriously hurt.
“He’s got a smile on his face: `I’m going to be just fine,”‘ Fleck said.
Ibrahim was unavailable to reporters, but he backed his coach’s assessment up with a deeply introspective statement posted Monday to his Twitter account: “What if everything you are going through is preparing you for what you’ve asked for?”
Ibrahim would be eligible for a medical redshirt, should he wish to return to school for a sixth season with the program.
“Whether he comes back or goes to the NFL, it’s a choice he’ll make. Not now, but later,” Fleck said.
Ibrahim rushed 30 times for 163 yards before the injury, moving into eighth place on the program’s career rushing yards list (3,003). His per-game average (103.6) is slightly higher than that of the all-time leader Darrell Thompson (103.4), who racked up 4,654 yards from 1986-89. Ibrahim is also tied for fourth in career touchdowns (33), not far behind the all-time leader Thompson (40).
Fortunately for the Gophers, running back has long been one of their deepest positions. Treyson Potts (third year), Cam Wiley (third year) and Bryce Williams (fourth year) are next in line. Wiley (179 yards, one touchdown) and Potts (121 yards, one touchdown) saw limited action in 2020.
“We believe in all those running backs: Cam, Bryce, Trey. The list goes on,” quarterback Tanner Morgan said. “Our identity is we’re going to keep doing what we do, do what we believe in.”