No, the Gophers needn’t apologize for winning, but they should be concerned. They are playing with fire. A roaring blowtorch.
Three games against supposedly inferior opponents, three sloppy performances, three harrowing finishes and three wins.
They should feel happy to be 3-0. They shouldn’t feel boastful about their blueprint in arriving at that record.
The Gophers escaped another potential morale-crushing loss Saturday with a touchdown in the final minute that saved their bacon for a 35-32 win over double-digit underdog Georgia Southern at TCF Bank Stadium.
“It certainly wasn’t pretty, but a lot of football isn’t pretty,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said.
The Gophers enter their bye week undefeated, but they better find another gear quickly with Big Ten season beckoning. This kind of performance won’t cut it if they want to become serious contenders in the Big Ten West.
Gopher fans probably don’t care whether the glass is half-full or half-empty at the moment. They just need a stiff drink in that glass after witnessing a nonconference slate of white knucklers.
The Gophers did just about everything humanly possible to blow the game until late-game heroics by Tanner Morgan and his supremely talented receiving corps performed their Houdini impersonation again.
Tyler Johnson won a jump ball in the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown catch with 13 seconds left, his third touchdown of the game.
The final quarter was a glorious mess of killer mistakes, weird decisions and clutch plays.
The Gophers had a field-goal attempt blocked and returned 77 yards for a touchdown when they were in position to ice the win.
They had a sack-strip of Morgan returned 44 yards for a touchdown a few minutes later. That gave Georgia Southern a 32-28 lead with 3:47 left.
The Eagles lined up for a two-point conversion, and Fleck promptly used his final timeout. Why? The Gophers needed a touchdown to win either way. That timeout could’ve been valuable.
Turns out it wasn’t needed because the offense overcame a third-and-29 from their own 6, followed by a fourth-and-8 from their 27 on the final drive thanks to gut-check plays by Morgan and those talented receivers — Johnson, Rashod Bateman, Demetrius Douglas and Chris Autman-Bell.
Those four are fantastic.
The rest of the offense has been inconsistent, and now their stable of running backs is desperately thin.
The Gophers finished the game with their No. 5 running back, Bryce Williams. The top four — Rodney Smith, Mohamed Ibrahim, Shannon Brooks and Cam Wiley — either were already sidelined by injury or suffered injuries during the game.
Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca kept calling runs up the middle with little success, in large part because the mammoth offensive line has failed to meet expectations so far. That group must show dramatic improvement against Big Ten defenses.
The passing game has produced splash plays at critical moments, but the offense overall has lacked consistency and rhythm.
Ciarrocca still is trying to decipher how to use his playmakers and what his offense’s identity will be.
“We’re finding out what everybody still can do and how we’re able to distribute the ball to every single person that can do it, but also still keep our offense as simple as possible,” Fleck said this week. “It’s one football, all those athletes, but this is starting to see what we can expand on as we keep moving forward.”
They have two future NFL receivers in Johnson and Bateman, but Morgan continues to demonstrate youthful inconsistency. He improved to 7-2 as a starter, and he’s shown a knack for clutch plays, but his weaknesses are glaring at times.
He missed several open receivers Saturday on overthrows. But he made critical throws on the final drive to secure the win, which ultimately is the most important measure.
A win allowed the Gophers to exhale and celebrate, still undefeated. Their high-wire act is dangerous though.