With the Gophers leading New Mexico State 7-0 late in the first quarter of Thursday’s season opener, quarterback Zack Annexstad was back in the shotgun, surveying the defense. One problem: The true freshman took his eyes off the ball as it was snapped, and the Aggies recovered the fumble at Minnesota’s 12-yard line, setting up the tying touchdown.
How did Annexstad react to his error?
“Better than me,” Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said Wednesday, allowing for a chuckle that can come when the turnover is six days removed and the game ended in a 48-10 victory.
Annexstad’s response to the mistake impressed Ciarrocca.
“Right away, he knew he took his eyes off the ball,” Ciarrocca said. “The discussion was, ‘Learn from it. Let’s not do it again.’ And he was, ‘Gotcha. Everything’s fine.’ ”
The quarterback didn’t commit another turnover and helped lead a dominant second quarter in which the Gophers turned a 10-7 deficit into a 35-10 lead. He wasn’t perfect all night, going 6-for-17 for 58 yards in the second half, but he finished 16-for-33 for 220 yards and two touchdowns. More importantly to Ciarrocca, the youngster showed poise.
“At no point did I feel like he was out of control in the game. At no point did I feel like the game was going in fast-forward for him, [though] not every play was in slow motion,” Ciarrocca said. “… At no time did I think the moment was too big for him.”
The Gophers will need more of that from Annexstad on Saturday night against Fresno State, a much better opponent than New Mexico State. The Bulldogs were 10-4 and played in the Mountain West title game in 2017, and they opened this season with a 79-13 romp over Idaho. Balancing Annexstad’s experience and aptitude against an experienced opponent is Ciarrocca’s task.
“As he grows, sure, you’d like to be able to [put more on his plate],” the coach said. “The thing is, he’s still a true freshman. We know there’s going to be some bumps. … That’s what really separates quarterbacks at the end of the day. The special ones all learn from their mistakes. They all made ’em, but they have the ability to learn from them and it doesn’t happen again to them.”
It’s not all on Annexstad, though. Against New Mexico State, the Gophers showed marked improvement over last year at wide receiver, where true freshman Rashod Bateman (five receptions, 52 yards) and redshirt freshman Chris Autman-Bell (four catches, 43 yards) emerged as complements to go-to junior Tyler Johnson (five catches, 100 yards, two TDs). Up front, the offensive line didn’t allow a sack and paved the way for 522 yards of offense. Throw in two touchdown runs by Seth Green out of the Wildcat formation, and the Gophers showed offensive variety that was missing last year.
“That was fun; he did really well with it,” Ciarrocca said of Green. “That was something we started fooling around with in spring ball. I noticed that he had a good knack for it. … It was a nice little addition. I feel like it could help us moving forward.”
Still, the coordinator cautioned not to think the offense is a finished product.
“We’re not there yet, believe me,” Ciarrocca said. “But all the areas have improved, and when you combine that, it’s a significant improvement.”