Without Shannon Brooks in the backfield, there was some question about what Minnesota’s rushing attack would look like Saturday against Purdue.

Rodney Smith provided an answer pretty quickly.

On the Gophers’ second possession of the game, the sophomore sliced the defense apart and carried the ball 35 yards for a TD to go ahead 10-0 early in the first quarter.

It didn’t take long to realize that the Gophers would be just fine without Brooks this week. Against a weak Purdue rush defense, Smith had little trouble piling up yardage throughout the day.

There were no backups needed.

Brooks is a nice addition to Minnesota’s backfield. You could even argue that he’s a guy that deserves to see more touches and could be a more consistent big-play threat if his number was called a little more frequently.

His presence is nice. It allows Smith to keep his legs a little fresher and gives the Gophers a nice one-two punch in the backfield. The offense has a lot more functional elements when he’s in the lineup. But Smith keeps proving he can carry a heavy workload, and he can do it successfully.

Smith finished with 153 yards and three TDs in Minnesota’s 44-31 win over Purdue. It marked the fourth-straight week he eclipsed the 100-yard clip, and the sixth time he’s reached the feat this season. The Gophers are 5-1 when he passes that milestone.

Through 10 weeks of the season, Smith has quietly been one of the top ball-carriers in the B1G. He entered Saturday as the conference’s third-best back in total yardage and is just 46 yards away from the 1,000-yard mark. He’s been as important to the Gophers as any one player to any other team in the league.

And his importance is only growing.

Yes, Smith has been just about as dominant with the football as anyone in the conference. Nothing will take that away. But the Gophers haven’t faced the best defenses the B1G has to offer. That challenge still awaits.

The next three weeks, the Gophers travel to Nebraska, host Northwestern and travel to Madison to round out the season. Right now, they don’t exactly control their own destiny. Consecutive losses to Penn State and Iowa have slightly hampered that. But wins in the next three games would probably land Tracy Claeys and company in Indianapolis in December.

A B1G West crown may seem far-fetched at this point. Especially with games against the three best teams in the division still upcoming. It’s not out of the question, though.

Nebraska hasn’t blown out anyone. Northwestern’s offense continues to improve but the defense has some pretty gaping holes. Wisconsin is by far the best team remaining, but injuries are stretching one of the nation’s best defenses thinner and thinner.

Minnesota has a shot.

And a lot of that potential is riding on Smith.

His biggest struggle came against Iowa. He carried the ball just 11 times and picked up 44 yards. It was one of just two games where he didn’t cross the goal line. The other came a week earlier against Penn State.

Since that game he’s averaged 21 carries per game, has scored eight TDs and racked up 508 yards. It’s not coincidental that Minnesota is 4-0 during that stretch, too. He’s playing his best football at the perfect time and is keeping his team alive in the B1G race.

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Brooks returning to the lineup would be an important addition. You could argue that Minnesota won’t go 3-0 in the coming weeks without him back on the field. There’s a good foundation to that debate.

Brooks or no Brooks, Smith’s production has to stay consistent.

The Gophers offense can’t rely on Mitch Leidner or the passing game. Outside of Drew Wolitarsky, there aren’t great options at wide receiver. Smith is the one reliable weapon on that side of the football.

How close the Gophers come to reaching Indianapolis will depend on how far Smith will carry them.

His workload is about to get a lot heavier.