MINNEAPOLIS — A year later, the Minnesota Gophers are in a familiar position: 3-0 with their Big Ten opener against Maryland looming. Last year's team failed to keep the momentum of their promising start, but the players say they're not concerned.
"We're a completely different team, we're focused on tomorrow," center Jared Weyler said after his team beat Miami (Ohio) 26-3 on Saturday.
One key difference is their youth. The Gophers got strong performances from two true freshman against the RedHawks.
Zack Annexstad completed 12 of 20 throws for 142 yards and two short touchdowns to Tyler Johnson in his third collegiate start. And Bryce Williams had 33 rushes for 141 yards as featured back in place of Rodney Smith, who suffered a season-ending knee injury last week against Fresno State. Williams also had a big 35-yard reception in the second to finish with 176 yards total offense.
Still, Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said some of his players were hanging their heads in the locker room, upset for leaving "a lot of meat on the bone on offense."
"When you know a team comes in after winning by 23 points and they have a little disappointment in them, you know you've got a special group of people," Fleck said.
That attitude could serve them well as they prepare to face Big Ten competition.
Against the older RedHawks (0-3), the young Gophers looked the more-seasoned squad.
Williams carried seven times for 40 yards on Minnesota's opening drive, capped by Annexstad's 7-yard touchdown pass to Johnson to give the Gophers a 7-0 lead. Then, his 35-yard reception on third-and-17 late in the first half helped set up Johnson's second touchdown — a 7-yard toss from Seth Green.
Johnson, the junior wideout, caught nine balls for 133 yards.
Gus Ragland completed 11 of 20 passes for 108 yards and an interception that set up the second Annexstad-to-Johnson touchdown in the third.
Ragland killed a first-quarter drive with a fumble when the ball slipped out of his hand while dropping back to pass. Then, in the second, Alonzo Smith tripped in his end zone for a safety.
The RedHawks lost three offensive starters in the first half, including leading receivers Kenny Young and James Gardner, but coach Chuck Martin wasn't interested in using it as an excuse.
"Injuries didn't affect when we whiffed on a pass and fumbled. That has nothing to do with an injury," he said.
The RedHawks again struggled to run — they had 91 rushing yards and still haven't broken 100 yards on the ground this year. — the Gophers steadily moved the ball and wore down Miami's defense on a steamy 90-degree afternoon.
"If you can't run the football, it's hard to win games," Martin said.
Annexstad hurt his left ankle early but stayed in the game. He was pulled in the third quarter for backup Tanner Morgan.
BRYCE'S BIG DAY
Fleck said running back Mohamed Ibrahim was cleared to play after injuring his left leg in the season opener but didn't seem quite ready. So he went with Williams, which wasn't a problem.
"When you're here three and a half months as a running back, and you're only 18, and you're not developed, it's hard to break all of those tackles because you haven't even been in the strength program an entire year," Fleck said. "He should be being redshirted right now, but he's not. We can't. It's what we have to go through."
This is not the way Miami wanted to end its non-conference schedule. After a respectable season-opening loss to Marshall, the RedHawks are reeling after a 21-0 loss to Cincinnati and Saturday's sputtering performance in Minneapolis. Now they'll head into conference play wondering about the status of their starting running back (Young), top receiver (Gardner) and starting right tackle Tommy Doyle.
Annexstad continues to impress for Minnesota, and the Gophers appear to have caught a break with Williams as a more-than-viable alternative to Smith. The question is whether the two true freshmen, plus a host of redshirt freshmen and sophomores, will fare against Big Ten competition.
The RedHawks have their best chance to get on track offensively, opening the first two weeks of Mid-American conference play against struggling defenses. Miami travels to Bowling Green next week, which entered the weekend having given up 103 points — second-worst in the conference. The following week's opponent, Western Michigan, had allowed 104.
The Gophers will try to avoid a repeat of last season, when their 31-24 loss started a string of three straight defeats. Minnesota finished losing seven of nine.