A throng of talented running backs. A monster offensive line. Tight ends who could finally work into the passing game. Two receivers with NFL qualities. A dependable quarterback.
All these aspects of the Gophers offense had fans more excited for this season than many in recent memory. And yet they couldn’t combine to keep the Gophers from a nail-biting opener.
The Gophers had to come from behind to defeat South Dakota State 28-21 at TCF Bank Stadium. The home team needed a fourth-quarter fumble from the FCS-level Jackrabbits, a determined touchdown drive and a fancy two-point conversion to grab the victory in front of an announced crowd of 49,112 fans.
The offense totaled just 308 yards and averaged just 3.1 yards per carry, with Rodney Smith and Mohamed Ibrahim carrying most of the load.
The receivers fared better thanks to sophomore Rashod Bateman. His one-handed touchdown grab in the first half was stunning, and he finished with 132 yards on five catches. But senior Tyler Johnson had multiple drops, finishing with just 28 yards on three receptions.
No tight end caught a pass, mostly blocking as they did last year. And the offensive line, with its four returning starters from last year’s Quick Lane Bowl, allowed two sacks and at least two near misses despite their sizable advantage.
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck, though, took most of the blame for the offensive struggles.
“They took Tyler Johnson completely out of the game,” Fleck said. “… So a lot of our play-action game, how they were playing us, we had to run the ball a little bit more, had to have as many [run-pass options] as we needed to be able to have. And that goes on me. I thought our running backs ran really hard. We’ve got to block. I thought we were inconsistent. And again, that starts with me.”
Sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan, though, earned Fleck’s praise after completing 13 of 18 passes for 176 yards and one touchdown. He threw one poor interception early in the game but also enacted some fine scrambles later.
For the Gophers’ first score in the second quarter, they slogged down the field for 10 minutes, trudging 91 yards through 18 plays. Wildcat quarterback Seth Green had to fight for every centimeter of his 1-yard rush that gave the Gophers the first lead. It was a bit of a microcosm for the whole game — more difficult than it probably should have been.
After that long drive to start the scoring, the Gophers forced the Jackrabbits to a three-and-out but then failed to make a first down themselves the next drive. The Jackrabbits then turned up the pressure, moving 66 yards through six plays in less than three minutes for their first touchdown, a 1-yard rush from first-time quarterback J’Bore Gibbs.
The Gophers answered, though, with their own 75-yard, six-play drive in even less time, capped that stellar Bateman catch, to re-establish the lead. But a penalty forced the extra point back 15 yards, and freshman kicker Michael Lantz couldn’t convert.
Junior Cade Johnson returned the kickoff 99 yards to the end zone, but a holding penalty pulled what would have been the Jackrabbits’ first lead back to the 14-yard line.
Halftime brought the Gophers some new life, thanks to their defense. Senior cornerback Chris Williamson ran in a 43-yard interception return to extend the Gophers’ lead.
SDSU again had a penalty call take a touchdown away, this one a 53-yard catch from sophomore running back Pierre Strong. But the Jackrabbits still converted the drive with an eventual 1-yard run from senior running back Mikey Daniel.
Gibbs threw a 13-yard pass to redshirt freshman tight end Zach Heins toward the end of the third quarter, and the extra point put the Jackrabbits in the lead for the first time.
Gibbs bungled a handoff to Strong with about nine minutes left in the game, and defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere recovered at the 34-yard line.
“I saw the ball on the ground, and it was instinct,” DeLattiboudere said. “… And then after I got up, it was like, I didn’t even want to give it to the ref. Like I was just holding it, chinning it so hard.”
Ibrahim eventually turned that into a 1-yard score. Johnson then dusted off his high school quarterback skills, taking the handoff and tossing the ball to Morgan in the end zone for the two-point conversion.
The Gophers defense allowed 367 yards of total offense, and it took until late in the game to record its first sack and tackle for a loss, though those did come on a decisive final drive for South Dakota State.
“Sometimes you don’t play your best, you’re tested, your back’s against the wall,” Fleck said. “And you find a way to win.”