His team had just won a game by 23 points on a sweltering, 91-degree afternoon. It had just improved to 3-0, which, when using math, is the best record you can have after three games. So, when P.J. Fleck walked into the locker room after the game, what did he see from his players?
Heads hanging down.
And that was a good sign to the Gophers coach.
“When you know a team comes in after winning by 23 points and they have a little disappointment in them,’’ Fleck said after the Gophers’ 26-3 victory over Miami (Ohio), “you know you’ve a special group of people.’’
The Gophers completed nonconference play on Saturday in front of an announced crowd of 41,162 at TCF Bank Stadium not with the sharp effort they had the previous week in a tense victory over Fresno State, but rather by riding a stout defensive performance and getting enough plays on offense to repel the RedHawks (0-3).
Three touchdown catches by Tyler Johnson and a defense that allowed only a field goal, registered a safety and forced three turnovers helped mask the offensive blemishes.
“We left a lot of meat on the bone on offense,’’ said Fleck, whose team had four other possessions in which it drove inside the Miami 31 but had only a field goal to show for it.
The defense stood out, though. Linebackers Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin made eight tackles each. Cornerback Antonio Shenault made seven and and returned an interception 42 yards, and rush end Carter Coughlin sacked quarterback Gus Ragland twice.
“Stifling defense. Salty. Stingy,’’ said Fleck, whose team has surrendered three touchdowns all season, two after turnovers inside Minnesota’s 20-yard line.
The Gophers also got a big boost from punter Jacob Herbers, who pinned Miami at its 3-, 2- and 8-yard lines. “Player of the game. Period,’’ Fleck said.
True freshman running back Bryce Williams, making his first career start, rushed 33 times for 141 yards and added a key 35-yard gain on a screen pass. Williams helped free things for Johnson, who caught nine passes for 133 yards and the three scores.
“He ran HARD 33 times,’’ Gophers center Jared Weyler said of Williams. “He didn’t just run 33 times. It’s impressive.’’
Gophers quarterback Zack Annexstad completed 12 of 20 passes for 142 yards and two TDs but was slowed by a left ankle injury suffered on a first-quarter sack. He left the game after throwing a TD pass to Johnson for a 26-3 lead with 7:02 left in the third quarter. Tanner Morgan and Seth Green took the remainder of the snaps at QB.
Fleck said he removed Annexstad because of the injury and how the true freshman was reacting to it. “I didn’t feel he was comfortable in the pocket,’’ he said. “It was strictly [because of] injury and not performance-based.’’
The Gophers opened the game with a 13-play, 66-yard march that used 7:11 to take a 7-0 lead, with Annexstad hitting Johnson on a 7-yard pass for the score.
Leading 10-3 late in the second quarter, the Gophers took control for good. When a promising drive stalled at Miami’s 35, Fleck opted to punt rather than try a field goal of 50-plus yards into a slight wind. Herbers pinned the RedHawks at their 2 with 4:02 left in the half.
That strategy worked as well as Fleck could have hoped, because the Gophers got a safety for a 12-3 lead when RedHawks running back Alonzo Smith tripped in the end zone for a 2-yard loss. Barber had first- and second-down tackles of Smith for no gain to set up the safety.
The Gophers quickly made it 19-3. First, Williams took a screen pass down the sideline 35 yards to the Miami 40 on third-and-17. Annexstad later found Johnson for an 18-yard gain to the 7. In came Green in the wildcat, and he threw a dart to Johnson on a slant for a 7-yard TD.
Afterward, the celebration might have been muted, but Fleck got both a win and a teachable moment from the result, with next Saturday’s Big Ten opener at Maryland on the horizon.
“We won. Let’s be excited for 24 hours, then tomorrow we can put our big-boy pants back on, put our leather-skin vest on, and we’re going to get coached,’’ he said. “And we’re going to find out how much better we can be.’’