Gophers coach P.J. Fleck is fond of saying how his team plays is more important than the result.
On Saturday afternoon at TCF Bank Stadium, the result he saw was a 34-3 victory over Middle Tennessee that left the Gophers with a 3-0 record through the nonconference portion of Fleck’s first season at Minnesota.
But how the Gophers played in front of an announced crowd of 43,727 showed a mixed bag: a sluggish offense early, ground and pound late, another stifling defensive effort and a big dose of perseverance.
“I’m very proud of our players’ resolve,” said Fleck, the first Gophers coach to start his Minnesota career 3-0 since Murray Warmath won four in a row to begin the 1954 season.
Nowhere was that resolve more apparent than at running back.
Shannon Brooks, the co-starter, dressed but did not play as a precaution because of a shoulder injury.
Rodney Smith, the other co-starter, rushed for 107 yards in the first half but took a hard hit on his final carry. “Dinged,” as Fleck described him, Smith did not play in the second half. Fleck isn’t sure how much time he might miss.
Enter senior Kobe McCrary, who rushed 23 times for 107 yards and three touchdowns. He did most of his damage in the second half, when the Gophers hogged the ball for 19 minutes, 3 seconds. On the 16-play, 56-yard drive in which the Gophers went ahead 27-3 on McCrary’s 1-yard plunge, McCrary carried 10 times for 37 yards on the 8:06 march.
“It’s always the next one up,” the 240-pound McCray said. “Rodney, Shannon, all of us are good enough to play if someone goes down. … We knew we were going to be able to run the ball.”
Added Fleck: “I loved how he ran. What did he have? Twenty-three carries, 107 yards, three touchdowns. And that’s your third back?”
Middle Tennessee (1-2) certainly wasn’t sympathetic to the Gophers injuries. First, the Blue Raiders had to play without standout quarterback Brent Stockstill, a third-year starter who suffered a cracked sternum and had his collarbone separated from his sternum last week at Syracuse. He was ruled out during Saturday’s pregame drills.
Then the Blue Raiders lost their best playmaker, receiver Richie James, to an ankle injury in the first quarter. James, who surpassed 100 receptions in each of the past two seasons, returned briefly but was limited to one catch for minus-2 yards and two rushes for 25 yards.
“This was an opportunity lost,” James said. “We had key players that needed to play who didn’t play, so at this point, you just have to let it go.”
While the Middle Tennessee offense was hamstrung, the Gophers themselves took a while to get going.
Minnesota drove down the field on its first drive but had to settle for Emmit Carpenter’s 24-yard field goal. “We came right out of the gates and ran it down their throat,” said quarterback Conor Rhoda, who completed 11 of 18 passes for 122 yards.
Mistakes and penalties by the Gophers helped Middle Tennessee force three consecutive three-and outs, and the Blue Raiders tied it 3-3 on Canon Rooker’s 45-yard field goal early in the second quarter.
The Gophers started to wake up then. First, Smith had a 40-yard kickoff return and a 29-yard run that set up Carpenter’s 47-yard field goal. Then, McCrary’s 14-yard TD run made it 13-3 with 6:02 left in the half. Key on that drive was Rhoda’s 27-yard completion to Demetrius Douglas to the Blue Raiders 9-yard line on second-and-21 following a sack.
The Minnesota defense got into the act with the game’s biggest play.
Middle Tennessee was on the move, getting to the Gophers 42, but safety Jacob Huff intercepted John Urzua’s pass in the flat and returned it 67 yards for a touchdown and a 20-3 lead.
“I’ve never had a pick-six, so seeing all that daylight and green, it was a pretty humbling experience,” Huff said.
Thomas Barber added a third-quarter interception that set up the 16-play TD drive.
“Our defense created a lot of energy and purpose,” Fleck said after his defense pitched its third consecutive second-half shutout. “They were flying around everywhere.”
The Gophers closed the scoring when on a 5-yard TD run by McCrary that was set up by Rhoda’s 50-yard hookup with tight end Nate Wozniak.
“We really got it going after halftime,” said Rhoda, in his first start after being named the No. 1 QB, a job he had shared with Demry Croft in the first two games.