Vikings coach Mike Zimmer knew that for all the focus being put on the offense with new quarterback Kirk Cousins, this was still their first time sharing the field for an extended period and there were going to be some growing pains.
The fact that the Vikings came out with a 24-16 victory while at times looking impressive offensively made Zimmer feel like the team is on the right track.
“We won, and we handled the adversity pretty well and that was important to me,” Zimmer said. “We got a nice lead, they made some plays on us, and they came back. It is tough to win in this league. When we handled the adversity, the defense went out there and stopped them and the offense moved the ball at the end and did a nice job with the play clock. We were able to get it out of there without them having the ball back.”
The offense was clearly better in the first half, as the Vikings gained 218 yards while scoring 10 points on a 48-yard field goal by Daniel Carlson and a perfectly placed 22-yard pass from Cousins to Stefon Diggs. In the second half they gained just 125 yards and scored on a Kyle Rudolph 11-yard touchdown pass from Cousins that capped a nine-play, 75-yard drive.
“They did pretty good — they were 41 percent [7-for-17] on third downs, and they had 350 yards or something [the Vikings finished with 343 yards compared to 327 for the 49ers], we just didn’t score as many touchdowns,” Zimmer said. “That will be an emphasis for us going forward when we get down there close. You know the one I was disappointed, we got a turnover and the ball was on the 40-yard line [San Francisco’s 38] and we end up losing 1 yard and having to punt. We need to go forward with that and try to get points on those.”
There’s no doubt that one of the biggest plays of the game involved the offense not even taking a snap. Cousins executed a hard count on fourth-and-1 at the Vikings 41 with 2 minutes, 54 seconds left in the fourth quarter that drew San Francisco offside.
Instead of having to punt and giving the ball to Jimmy Garoppolo and a resurgent 49ers offense, the Vikings were able to run a minute off the clock.
“We practice it all the time, and it worked this time,” Zimmer said. “We are glad it did.”
After a punt, Harrison Smith made the game-clinching interception two plays later.
Cousins, Cook ready
The two biggest question marks on the offensive side coming into the game were Cousins and the return of injured running back Dalvin Cook.
Cousins finished 20-for-36 for 244 yards and two scores, while Cook rushed 16 times for 40 yards but also made six receptions — tied for the team lead with Adam Thielen — for 55 yards.
“I thought he did well,” Zimmer said of Cousins. “He’s a good football player, cool, calm, made some great throws. We have to continue to get better.”
Of course, Zimmer was not pleased with Cook’s fumble after a tremendous run in the first half, but he said overall it was a good return to the field for the former second-round pick.
“I thought he was good,” Zimmer said. “He ran the ball good. He fumbled the one time. He’s a really good back, caught the ball well out of the backfield and made guys miss. You know he’s a good football player.”
The Vikings once again proved that if they can score points, they will win. Sunday marked the 37th time the team has scored 21 or more points since Zimmer took over as coach. They are 33-4 in those games.
Defensive stars shine
Maybe the biggest play of the game was with 2:30 left in the first half when Linval Joseph knocked the ball out of Alfred Morris’ hands when he was 1 yard from the end zone after a 14-play, 69-yard drive. Smith recovered to salvage the Vikings’ 10-3 lead.
Smith led the team in tackles with eight while contributing a sack, a quarterback hit, the interception and the fumble recovery.
He remains the most versatile defender in the NFL.
“I thought he played pretty well today, recovered the fumble and the big interception at the end of the game,” Zimmer said. “We had some others. Xavier [Rhodes] had a nice interception, we had a lot of guys step up. But we have a lot of work to do.”
The Vikings finished with three sacks as newly signed free agent Sheldon Richardson split a sack with Everson Griffen. Richardson and Griffen both had three quarterback hits while Danielle Hunter had a sack, two tackles for loss and a QB hit as well.
“Those guys have to keep fighting and keep going, and when they do good things usually happen,” Zimmer said.
Did he feel that he made enough calls to rush the passer?
“I don’t know. I blitzed them when it counted,” he said. “I was setting them up.”
Gophers take big step
The fact that the Gophers were not only able to defeat Fresno State 21-14 but to do so after Rodney Smith was injured just three plays into the game proves that this might be a big year for coach P.J. Fleck and his young roster.
On Saturday the Gophers will face Miami (Ohio), a team that is 0-2 and was shut out at home against Cincinnati on Saturday and lost its home opener two weeks ago to Marshall, 35-28. The Gophers have opened up as 15-point favorites, and there’s a very good chance they will enter the Big Ten season 3-0.
Still on Saturday it was all about a few key plays. One of the unheralded stars was Emmit Carpenter. The senior kicker nailed field goals of 53 yards in the second quarter and 50 in the fourth.
“We believe in him as a coaching staff,” Fleck said Sunday. “One thing about this football team is I really like them. I like their work. I like their refuse-to-lose mentality versus a wanting-to-win mentality.
“When you have a kicker you really trust, you prove to him that you trust him. There’s a lot of opportunities to go for it on fourth down, a 50- or 53-yarder is not a high percentage, but for our guy I think they are.”
And if you wanted an indication of how true it was when Fleck said his team was going to rely on youth more than ever, you saw it in Bryce Williams, who finished with 87 yards on 25 carries.
The true freshman was a somewhat unheralded recruit out of Florida, ranked as the 18th-best running back in that state.
“Bryce Williams as the game went on got better and better and better,” Fleck said. “Another true freshman thrown into a situation probably way earlier than expected and probably way earlier than he should be playing. But we knew we’d be in that position at some point this year.”
Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. on Monday and Friday and at 9:30 a.m. on Sundays. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org