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Gopher RBs Pinnix, Russell step up in wearing down Spartans

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Like shoving quarters into a slot machine,
Minnesota rarely runs out of quality running backs.

And the Gophers never really have to leave anything to chance.
With an offensive line as good as theirs, they almost always reap
the rewards of their nation-leading ground game.

Backups Amir Pinnix and Gary Russell led Minnesota to a 41-18
victory over fading Michigan State, with Big Ten leading rusher
Laurence Maroney stuck on the sideline Saturday with a sore right
ankle.

"It's nice to have the kind of depth at running back that our
team has," said guard Mark Setterstrom, one of 16 seniors who
played their final home game. "We have confidence that any one of
our running backs can step in and do well for us."

Dominant blocking sure helps.

"They kicked our tail today. That's the best offensive front
we've seen on tape and played against this year," Spartans coach
John L. Smith said.

Maroney, whose 1,345 yards were the most in the conference
coming into the week, went through warmups for the Gophers (7-3,
4-3) -- but stood and watched all afternoon without his shoulder
pads on while Pinnix and Russell wore down Michigan State (5-5,
2-5). Maroney got hurt the week before in a win at Indiana.

Russell started at tailback and gained 85 yards and two
touchdowns on 19 carries, playing only in the first half because of
a hard hit he took to the head. Pinnix rushed 32 times for 206
yards -- both career highs -- and had a fourth-quarter score.

"Running backs get the shine and the glory," Pinnix said,
"but all the glory should go to the line."

While their opponents were busy with all those congratulations,
the Spartans were sorting out their fifth loss in the last six
games.

"I think maybe in times like this we press and try to do too
much, because we're trying to find ways to get back to the way we
were playing," said Drew Stanton, who went 29-for-46 for 312 yards
and fourth-quarter touchdown passes to Dwayne Holmes and Terry
Love.

Most of that yardage was meaningless, though, once Minnesota had
built a comfortable lead. Michigan State, which ranked as high as
11th in the AP poll after winning its first four, dropped six
passes in the first half -- including two in a row by Love in the
second quarter. The first one glanced off his outstretched hands at
the 10-yard line in a 14-3 game and would have gone for a 51-yard
touchdown.

The Spartans also committed eight penalties, including a holding
call on tackle Stefon Wheeler at the end of the second quarter
after an 11-yard run by Stanton ended at the Gophers' 13-yard line.
Instead, the ball was moved back to the 34, and Matt Haughey's
51-yard field goal was blocked as time expired -- preserving a 21-3
advantage for Minnesota. That was Haughey's second blocked kick of
the half.

"We're not as mentally tough as we need to be. You've got to do
something positive to gain confidence," Smith said, "and we
haven't been able to do that."

Bryan Cupito was 8-of-13 for 123 yards with no interceptions and
touchdown passes to Matt Spaeth and Ernie Wheelwright. He handed
the ball off 63 times.

"That was probably our best team game of the year," Cupito
said. "It's a great offense we have. It just shows what great
coaches we have, and they have the right players for the system."

The Gophers average nearly 300 yards rushing per game, and their
offensive line -- led by four-year starters Setterstrom and Greg
Eslinger -- is just as responsible for that as Maroney and his
cohorts.

The ground game didn't miss a beat with Russell, who moved
within 33 yards of 1,000 for the season, which would make Minnesota
the first team in major college history to have two runners reach
that milestone for three straight years. Maroney accomplished it
with Marion Barber III the past two seasons.

"They showed us everything that they've been doing the past
couple of weeks, but they're just so good at it," Spartans
linebacker David Herron Jr. said.

Russell, who also had 68 yards receiving, was leveled by
Spartans strong safety Eric Smith while trying to catch a pass up
the seam late in the second quarter. He was woozy when he got up,
stumbled off the field and missed nine plays before returning and
polishing off an 18-play, 80-yard drive with a 1-yard plunge.

That was Russell's 17th rushing touchdown this year, tying him
with Barber for the school record.

Also a sophomore, Pinnix picked it up from there and carried 25
times in the second half -- accounting for all but six of the
Gophers' offensive plays. They held the ball for nearly 36½ of the
game's 60 minutes and converted 14 of 17 third-down situations.

Already assured of a bowl game, Minnesota visits Iowa next week
to close the regular season. Michigan State, however, needs to beat
No. 6 Penn State to be postseason-eligible.

"We can't quit," center Chris Morris said. "We've got too
much to play for."