Joy and relief were two of the emotions the Gophers experienced Saturday after beating Illinois 24-17 for their first Big Ten victory of the season.
But there was another feeling that hung around after the win, the elephant in the room, per se.
Concern, specifically over the Gophers passing offense.
Demry Croft replaced Conor Rhoda as the starting quarterback on Saturday, and he wasn’t nearly as sharp as he was the week before, when he threw three fourth-quarter touchdown passes to rally the Gophers in a 30-27 loss to Michigan State. Against Illinois, Croft completed five of 15 passes for 47 yards and a touchdown with two second-half interceptions. A rushing attack that produced 292 yards and a defense that limited the damage after turnovers enabled the Gophers (4-3, 1-3 Big Ten) to fend off Illinois (2-5, 0-4).
So, where does coach P.J. Fleck go from here when it comes to his quarterbacks?
First, don’t expect him to bench Croft. Fleck hasn’t made knee-jerk decisions about his quarterbacks, and he indicated on Sunday that the starting job belongs to Croft.
“I’m not one to just say, ‘You didn’t play particularly well. Sit back on the bench.’ He gets a chance to make it right,’’ Fleck said on WCCO Radio. “We’ll evaluate the position as we continue to move forward. … I’ve got to coach better, got to get him better prepared.’’
Croft started well, connecting with Tyler Johnson for an 8-yard touchdown on the Gophers’ first possession. However, as the game went on his accuracy diminished, particularly on third-down throws, on which he went 0-for-6 with an interception. Not coincidently, the Gophers finished 3-for-11 on third-down conversions.
Fleck sees corrections that the coaching staff can make to help Croft improve.
“He was a little jumpy in the pocket. … We’ve got to get his feet settled down,’’ Fleck said. “When his feet are quiet, he’s a really, really talented quarterback. When his feet are loud or active, that’s when you struggle with accuracy.
“Hopefully, he got that out of the way — that first start and those jitters.’’
Croft does add a running dimension to the offense, and he had 11 carries for 32 yards on Saturday. That threat can help open things up for the running backs, and Kobe McCrary had 153 yards on the ground and Rodney Smith had 103 against the Illini.
Struggles in the passing game are nothing new for the Gophers, this year or in the past. They rank 12th in the Big Ten with an average of 158.9 passing yards per game, a figure that drops to 148.3 in only conference games. Last year with three-year starter Mitch Leidner at QB, the Gophers also ranked 12th in the Big Ten in passing yards at 173.6 per game. Since 2009, they haven’t finished higher than eighth.
There is a nugget of hope for Croft and the Gophers passing attack. Three of Minnesota’s five remaining opponents have passing defenses that have been prone to giving up yards. This week’s opponent, Iowa, is 12th in the Big Ten, allowing 235.4 passing yards per game. Nebraska (11th, 229.6) and Northwestern (13th, 245.9) also are near the bottom. Michigan and Wisconsin, however, rank first and fourth, respectively, in pass defense.
When assessing his players, Fleck says failure is a growing experience. We saw that Saturday with Croft, who’ll likely get another chance this week at Iowa.
“This is like a lawn mower, man. You’ve gotta continue to pull that cord over and over and over ’til that thing starts,’’ Fleck said Saturday. “You have no other choice.’’
Randy Johnson covers college football for the Star Tribune. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @RJStrib