All offseason, Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck noted that South Dakota State wasn’t a typical opponent to start the season.
Fleck told me this week that the Jackrabbits were going to present a huge challenge to the Gophers.
Yes, they are an FCS team, but they are also the fourth-ranked team in the nation. The Jackrabbits roster is flooded with players from Minnesota high schools who were definitely looking forward to playing the Big Ten program from their home state.
Fleck’s worry proved right. The Jackrabbits did more than just test the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium on Thursday night.
They looked like the superior team in the second half and held a 21-20 lead before the Gophers sneaked out with a 28-21 victory after a huge defensive play.
South Dakota State quarterback J’Bore Gibbs, who was getting more and more confident as the game wore on, missed a handoff and fumbled the ball with 8 minutes, 12 seconds remaining. It was recovered by Winston DeLattiboudere at the Jackrabbits 34-yard line.
The Gophers scored six plays later on a Mohamed Ibrahim 1-yard run, converted a two-point conversion, and held on to start their 2019 campaign 1-0.
But there is no question this is not how the Gophers wanted to begin their season.
A lot of the good will that was coming the Gophers’ way after the end of the 2018 season seemed to vanish as they were dominated in the third quarter as South Dakota State racked up 190 yards to 20 for the home team.
And while the Gophers got good performances from several players — including quarterback Tanner Morgan, who completed 13 of 18 passes for 176 yards with a long touchdown pass to Rashod Bateman, who made a spectacular catch — the stats tell a story that they were lucky to win this game.
With all of the talk this year about the Gophers bringing back a number of key starters, one thing might have been overlooked was the fact that this defense was starting a lot of new faces, and even with players returning from injury, such as defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr., this group hasn’t played together at all.
It showed in the statistics. South Dakota State outgained the Gophers 367-308 and what was more impressive was that they were able to outrush the Gophers 174-132.
Yes, things aren’t going to get easier for the Gophers.
They travel to Fresno State on Sept. 7, and the Bulldogs finished 12-2 last season with victories over Boise State and Arizona State and nearly beat the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium.
You can’t make assumptions on a season after only one game, but you have to wonder if those Big Ten media members who picked the Gophers to finish sixth might have been onto something.
Or it could just be that the Gophers faced an opponent on Thursday night that was ready to give them a big challenge in the first game of the season.
Either way, the Gophers will have a lot to work on before they had to California next week.
Barber has big goals
While the opener night not have not gone exactly how the Gophers planned, the fact is no one is going to remember how the season started if they can put this game behind them and start working towards some of their biggest goals.
And defensively they are going to have to step it up over the coming weeks if they’re going to compete for a Big Ten championship. Leading into the game, senior linebacker Thomas Barber said that is the bottom-line goal for this club.
“Everyone’s goals are always the same, win a Big Ten championship,” Barber said. “But that only happens with the process. It started with fall camp, getting better with each other, and then South Dakota State. Those are our goals. Take it day by day.”
Barber had five tackles against South Dakota State. Last season, he finished with 81 tackles, the third most on the team, and the Armstrong High School product believes the Gophers have the personnel this season to win the West Division and compete for that conference title.
“Very much so, I think we do. I think we have all the right pieces, all the right people,” he said. “I love the coaching staff, they’re a great group of guys. I know I can go into a game with this coaching staff and they’re going to put us in the right position and I know we have the right players to make the plays. Very excited for this year.”
Yes and even if the Gophers did get lucky in their win, it’s worth pointing out that South Dakota State averaged 42.5 points per game last season and were held to just 21 against the Gophers.
Gopher family tree
The Barber family is one of the most prominent in Gophers football history. Thomas’ father, Marion Barber, and his brothers, Marion Barber III and Dom Barber, were some of the greatest players in school history.
“My father, he was just really that guy, he just kind of wanted a fresh start. He grew up in Detroit and went to Minnesota and that was where he planted his family at,” Thomas Barber said. “It was one of those things where all three of us, my oldest brother [Marion III], my youngest brother [Dom] and I were all underrecruited, and people always say you got the offer because of your brother or got the offer because of your dad, and that may be true.
“But I am very thankful and I feel like we have all made the most out of this opportunity that we got and have shown people that Minnesota football is where the Barber name belongs.”
The Vikings will trim their roster to 53 starting Friday. They wrapped up their preseason with a 27-23 loss at Buffalo on Thursday night and can turn their attention to their Week 1 matchup with Atlanta.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said that while this will be a difficult team to cut, almost as important is who other teams cut.
If the right player is cut from another squad, he could end up on the Vikings this weekend.
“We’ll figure it out,” Zimmer said. “We’re going to have to keep looking at some other teams for some other players, as well, for some of their cuts. The people we cut at the 53 may not be the guys that end up being here.”
One big positive for Zimmer and the Vikings is that he believes the club will be fully healthy when it starts the regular season.
“We’re healthy. We’ll get everybody back before the first game,” he said. “But we need to play with great energy.”