A palpable angst had descended on TCF Bank Stadium early in the second quarter on a beautiful Thursday night. The Gophers were trailing New Mexico State 10-7 in their season opener and not looking good in doing so.
“Ah, here we go again,” summed up the mood of a crowd conditioned by history to expect the worst.
The gloom and doom, however, didn’t last long. A 28-point second quarter took care of that. More than 500 yards of offense didn’t hurt, either.
Behind three second-quarter touchdown drives that covered 75 yards or longer and a 76-yard punt return for a TD by Antoine Winfield Jr., the Gophers overwhelmed New Mexico State 48-10 in coach P.J. Fleck’s second Minnesota opener in front of an announced crowd of 41,291.
“Our players deserve all the credit,” Fleck said. “They played tremendously hard. They did it as a team — offense, defense and special teams. Everybody was involved.”
And they did it with their stars playing huge roles and a secret weapon helping turn the game.
• Senior running back Rodney Smith rushed 24 times for 153 yards, with 94 coming in that dominant second quarter. He had 189 total yards.
• Junior wide receiver Tyler Johnson caught five passes for 100 yards, including two first-half touchdowns.
• Winfield, who missed the final eight games of the 2017 season because of a hamstring injury, showed the type of difference-maker he can be. On his 76-yard punt return for a TD that made it 28-10, the sophomore powered his way through five would-be tacklers. Last year, the Gophers had a total of 36 yards in punt returns.
“It’s nice to have him back on the field, isn’t it?” Fleck said.
And that secret weapon? It was sophomore receiver Seth Green, a former quarterback who entered the game as a QB and scored TDs on runs of 9 and 3 yards out of the wildcat formation.
That all added up to help ease the transition for true freshman walk-on quarterback Zack Annexstad. Though Annexstad had a shotgun snap slip through his hands, a mistake that led to an Aggies touchdown, he completed 16 of 33 passes for 220 yards and two TDs. Under team rules regarding freshmen, Annexstad was not allowed to speak to the media after the game.
“Zack played a great game [Thursday], especially for it being his first game,” Johnson said. “I just saw a lot of confidence in him.”
Both teams struggled to move the ball early before Gophers linebacker Thomas Barber made a diving interception of a Matt Romero tipped pass, setting up Minnesota at midfield. The offense capitalized, with Annexstad throwing his first TD pass on a 7-yard slant to Johnson.
On the Gophers’ next series, however, Annexstad’s fumble put New Mexico State at the Minnesota 12, and Romero hit Izaiah Lottie on a fade for a 13-yard TD reception to tie the score 7-7. Fifty seconds into the second quarter, the Aggies took a 10-7 lead on Dylan Brown’s 45-yard field goal.
Time to panic? Not at all. Instead, the Gophers took over the game, with Smith tearing through the Aggies defense.
A seven-play, 75-yard drive ended with Green bulling his way into the end zone for a 14-10 lead. With 3:21 left in the half, the Gophers made it 21-10 on Green’s 3-yard wildcat run.
“We got in a groove, and our offensive line picked it up a bit,” Smith said. “… As the game progressed, it got to where I was going untouched all the way to the third level [of the Aggies defense].”
Then came two more big blows — Winfield’s return and Johnson’s 33-yard TD reception for a 35-10 lead at halftime.
“They played a lot more physical than we did,” said Aggies coach Doug Martin, whose team fell to 0-2 after losing its opener 29-7 to Wyoming last Saturday.
Next week, the Gophers will face a tougher opponent in Fresno State, a 10-win team last year. Fleck was pleased with the victory but knows his young team has much work to do.
“We need to start faster on offense,” he said. “And we need to put more complete games together on offense. But our defense dominated in a lot of areas.”