Football sure can be cruel sometimes. Diabolically cruel.
And yet wildly entertaining, too.
That was the reaction after watching the start and finish to the Gophers game Saturday night at TCF Bank Stadium.
Disappointment, then exhilaration. And the youngest team in college football grew up a little more because of both extremes. Enough so that coach P.J. Fleck fought back tears after witnessing a 21-14 victory over Fresno State at TCF Bank Stadium.
“This is one that I’ll always remember,” Fleck said. “This is one of those games that can do a lot for your season.”
It looked like it might ruin their season at the start. On the third offensive play of the game, Rodney Smith — team leader, standout running back and heart and soul of the entire program — did what he always does when he gets the ball in his hands. He ran with determination. But then the unpredictable nature of football happened.
Smith planted to make a cut and his left leg appeared to buckle. He didn’t bounce up like he has so many times throughout his wonderful career.
Smith stayed on the ground as Fleck and the medical staff came to check on him. After a few minutes, Smith was helped off the field by two athletic trainers, unable to put any weight on his left leg.
His young teammates picked him up symbolically. In a big way.
With Smith watching the second half from the sideline in a sweatsuit, the young Gophers rallied for the win thanks to a circus throw, a circus catch and a circus interception in the closing minutes.
The defining moment for the offense came with the Gophers trailing 14-13 late in the fourth quarter. They faced a third-and-9 from their own 44.
True freshman quarterback Zack Annexstad faced immediate pressure and started weaving in the backfield to buy time. Running to his left, he fired a pass downfield before taking a hit.
The throw was high but not too high for Tyler Johnson, who soared into the air, grabbed the ball and managed to get one foot down inbounds along the sideline for a 13-yard completion.
The Gophers didn’t let that bit of razzle-dazzle go to waste. They scored a touchdown and converted a two-point conversion for the winning points.
But not before more heroics from The Playmaker, Antoine Winfield Jr. Fresno State tried a trick play from the Gophers 4-yard line, but Winfield sniffed it out and made a sensational recovery and interception in the back of the end zone.
“It was inspiring what some of those young men did,” Fleck said.
Fleck didn’t have an update on Smith after the game. With any luck, his injury won’t be too serious. If it is, what a kick in the gut. The Gophers already are without Smith’s tag-team partner, Shannon Brooks, who is recovering from a knee injury.
The offense looked younger than a day care after Smith’s injury. The Gophers started one series with a true freshman quarterback, a true freshman running back and three freshman wide receivers.
Fleck compared it to riding a roller coaster.
“It’s all twists and turns and there’s that excitement level to it,” he said. “But there’s also that little bit of a fear too. Like, what’s through the tunnel?”
The answer: talent.
Fleck’s recruiting has injected the roster with more speed and athleticism. It’s obvious to anyone who has watched Fleck’s first two teams at Minnesota. There will be growing pains for sure, but the youngsters on the roster bring excitement and optimism about the future.
Especially Annexstad, who was mostly on target with his passing when he had time in the pocket. He completed 16 of 26 passes for 175 yards. In two starts, he has looked confident and not easily rattled.
It helps that he has more than one legitimate receiver. The offense isn’t forced to rely solely on Johnson anymore with the arrival of freshmen Chris Autman-Bell, Rashod Bateman and Demetrius Douglas.
The Gophers have playmakers on both sides of the ball. Young playmakers. And they took an important step in their development after watching their leader limp off the field.