With Adrian Peterson injured, Vikings backup running back Toby Gerhart gets a chance to shine

By Paul Tenorio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2010; 9:16 PM

There was never a moment Sunday when Minnesota Vikings backup running back Toby Gerhart was told the job was his for the remainder of the afternoon.

Starting running back Adrian Peterson remained on the sideline after rolling his ankle in the second quarter against the Washington Redskins, trying to shake off the injury and hoping to return to the game. Gerhart, a rookie who had rushed for just 86 yards all season entering Sunday's game, was told to stay ready while they "tested it out."

"They just kept pushing me back out there," he said with a laugh.

With Peterson, one of the most dynamic running backs in the league sidelined for nearly three quarters of the game, Gerhart, a second-round pick from Stanford, kept the Vikings' offense rolling in Peterson's absence. Gerhart rushed for 76 yards on 22 carries, a average of 3.5 yards, and scored his first career touchdown to help lead the Vikings to a 17-13 win at FedEx Field.

It was the Vikings' first win on the road this season, and for Gerhart, the runner-up for last year's Heisman Trophy, it was the first time that he had more than five carries in an NFL regular season game.

"The first two carries I was definitely nervous. I missed my reads and I was a little stiff," Gerhart said. "And then afterwards it was like, 'All right, just relax and play.' I've been doing it my whole life, carrying the ball, so just go out there and do what's natural."

Gerhart had not carried the load for an offense since he rushed 32 times for Stanford in a 31-27 loss to Oklahoma in the Sun Bowl on Dec. 31, 2009. Entering Sunday's game, Gerhart had just 24 rushes on the season.

But when Peterson went down after Redskins linebacker Lorenzo Alexander rolled on his right leg at the end of a one-yard gain early in the second quarter, Gerhart was thrust into the lineup.

His first three carries went for just four yards, but Gerhart said he found a rhythm as the game wore on.

Gerhart picked away at the Redskins' defense - 11 of his next 14 carries went for at least four yards - and on the sideline Peterson said he encouraged Gerhart to keep taking the yards given and to protect the football. Gerhart has lost two fumbles this season, including one last week against the Green Bay Packers.

"I was just motivating him," Peterson said. "Protect the ball and just run north-south, keep your head up. He had to step in there and play a full role and I felt like he did a great job. He was [gaining] four and five [yards per carry] there and helped us keep the drives alive."

The Vikings leaned on Gerhart on two of the biggest drives of the game.

At the start of the second half with the game tied at 7, Gerhart carried the ball four times for 14 yards, including a five-yard run in which he took a handoff up the middle and hauled two Redskins defenders into the end zone for his first career touchdown.

"It feels good, you know, I've come up short a few times," Gerhart said. "I tripped a couple of weeks ago and got tackled on the half-yard line at New England. To finally get in there feels great."

When the Vikings took over with a four-point lead and 6 minutes 13 seconds remaining, they stuck with Gerhart to seal the win. Gerhart carried seven times for 25 yards, twice picking up first downs to keep the clock ticking and the drive alive. Despite his play on the final drive, even the 23-year-old rookie had to concede that quarterback Brett Favre's game-clinching 10-yard run was the biggest of the game.

On third and eight with just more than two minutes remaining, the 41-year-old Favre rolled out and looked for Percy Harvin before turning a run inside to clinch it. Teammates took notice, and took advantage of the chance to tease their veteran leader.

"He looked younger, he looked like he was about 38 on that run," Peterson said.

Added tight end Visanthe Shiancoe: "Oh man, I was like, 'I should press play with the slow motion.' "

Even Favre, who praised Gerhart for his performance, acknowledged it was a rare moment in the latter years of his career.

"It was 10 yards? Really? Felt like 50," Favre said. "We needed that win. All wins are important but that one. . . it's funny how sometimes what seems so insignificant to some people seems so big to the person or the team involved, and that was the case for us today."

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