The Gophers survived their home opener, beating Oregon State 30-23 after a late touchdown run by Mitch Leidner sealed things. Still it’s hard to say the Gophers really had any business winning the game.
Leidner finished 13-for-26 for 130 yards passing while rushing for 76 yards on 13 carries and two scores, but in the first half he was outplayed by the Beavers’ Darell Garretson, who finished with 228 passing yards and three scores.
The Gophers got a number of key contributions to eke out the victory, none more so than Rodney Smith’s career-high 125 yards rushing on 25 carries and two scores.
Still, the play of the game might have been when linebacker Jaylen Waters and defensive lineman Steven Richardson combined to stop Beavers running back Tim Cook on fourth-and-1 with 4 minutes, 45 seconds to play. At the time the Gophers were hanging on to a one-point lead, and Oregon State was in Gophers territory.
That stop opened the door for Leidner’s best play of the night. He led an eight-play, 57-yard drive that lasted 3:18 and completed two passes to Drew Wolitarsky, one for 17 yards, the other for 19. Leidner also rushed for 14 yards, capped by the touchdown run.
Still the only thing that Tracy Claeys will feel truly good about is the fact that his team won his first season opener as a head coach.
The Gophers were sloppy. They had three players ejected. They had two snaps by center Tyler Moore sail over Leidner’s head, one of which was recovered by Smith on the 2-yard line, another that ended in a safety.
Wolitarsky muffed a punt at the 25-yard line that led to an Oregon State touchdown, and entering the fourth quarter the Gophers trailed 23-17 at home to a team that won two games last year and held open tryouts for players just a few weeks ago.
Still, all you want from the your first game is a victory, and a highly anticipated season for the Gophers would have been ruined by a loss. Now the team can look to clean things up against Indiana State on Sept. 10 at TCF Bank Stadium.
The victory was all the more important because this is a make-or-break season for the Gophers, who have nine key seniors on their two-deep depth chart. And it had to feel good for those players to get a win, no matter how they did it.
The most important, of course, is quarterback Leidner, who undoubtedly will finish his career with a number of Gophers records if he can stay healthy through all 13 games this season. Leidner has a 21-15 record, and ESPN has him listed as the sixth-best quarterback available in next year’s NFL draft.
There’s no question the expectations for this Gophers season start and end with Leidner and his ability to improve the team’s offensive output. So while he looked good, you have to imagine he’ll look to improve even more as the season goes along.
The lone senior among the wide receivers is Wolitarsky, who finished with four receptions for 53 yards.
The two senior starters on the defensive line are defensive tackle Scott Ekpe and his brother, defensive end Hendrick Ekpe. The two combined for five tackles.
Then there are redshirt senior linebackers Jack Lynn, who started and had seven tackles, and Nick Rallis, who is backing up redshirt junior Cody Poock, who was ejected for targeting. Rallis ended the night with five tackles.
The Gophers also have Damarius Travis, who was granted a sixth-year medical hardship waiver, at free safety and senior Jalen Myrick at cornerback.
Travis ended with four tackles and a key pass deflection in the fourth, while Myrick had five tackles.
Yes, the senior depth on the Gophers isn’t abundant, but it’s spread out in such a way that their leadership will be crucial on defense and offense. They will need to continue to step up and improve their play the rest of the season.
No matter the outcome this was a big moment for Claeys after being named head coach after 21 years as an assistant to Jerry Kill, who resigned last October because of health reasons.
“The main thing is now I’m the one who is responsible for making sure everything gets covered and our kids are prepared for the first game,” Claeys said. “We’ve had 29 practices to do that, so you have to make sure all of the T’s are crossed and I’s are dotted. I’m very lucky that Coach kept all his information in three-ring notebooks and left it for me. I’ve been going through that and making sure that [we cover] all the different situations in practice and our kids are prepared.
“I used to just have to worry about one side of the ball, but now it’s my job to make sure special teams is prepared, the offense is prepared, and the defense, so it’s a lot more responsibility.”
• The knee injury suffered by Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater caused the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook to immediately change the Vikings’ odds to win the Super Bowl from 20-1 to 30-1, their odds to win the NFC North from 10-1 to 15-1 and their odds for Week 1 of the regular season at Tennessee went from being favored by 3½ points to 2½ points.
• The Gophers’ ability to draw fans to TCF Bank Stadium will be tested more this year than maybe ever before. If the Gophers start losing and the Vikings are winning, attendance will dwindle for the Gophers. Fortunately they play Iowa at home, which will be a plus, but they also face Rutgers, Northwestern and Purdue, who will not draw flies. The pressure on the Gophers to win is more than ever.
• The Twins will have six prospects on the Surprise Saguaros roster for the Arizona Fall League. Surprisingly, some of their bigger Class AAA stars are not on the roster, but top-100 prospect and shortstop Nick Gordon is there. Gordon, pitchers John Curtiss and Randy Rosario and outfielder Tanner English are on the squad after playing at Class A Fort Myers this season. Mitch Garver of Class AAA Rochester will be a catcher for the squad, and Class AA pitcher Mason Melotakis also will join the team. There is one spot remaining on the squad that is expected to be filled out by a Twins prospect.
Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. firstname.lastname@example.org