P.J. Fleck finally, mercifully, made a quarterback change. Based purely on football terms, it was overdue.
Conor Rhoda didn’t perform well enough to keep the job. Simple as that.
Now it’s up to Demry Croft to show some maturity, act like a leader and see if he can fix an offense that became painfully one-dimensional with Rhoda at the controls.
Croft brought the offense to life in desperation time, but the Gophers dug too deep of a hole in a 30-27 loss to Michigan State on a dreary night at TCF Bank Stadium.
The Gophers remain winless in the Big Ten, and Fleck’s first season is in danger of circling the drain if his team doesn’t fix myriad problems, including a defense that is getting pushed around too easily.
At least they have clarity at their quarterback position now. Croft should be their guy, though Fleck declined to make that announcement immediately after the game.
“I’ve got to do what’s best to give those guys in that locker room a chance to win,” Fleck said.
His decision should be easy then.
Croft completed 11 of 20 passes for 163 yards and three touchdowns with one interception in relief of Rhoda. He also carried the ball seven times for 31 yards.
Fleck gave Croft his second chance after he served a two-game suspension for an undisclosed violation of team rules. It was his only decision, really. Rhoda’s continued struggles left Fleck little choice but to see if Croft could provide a spark.
It would be easy to criticize Fleck for not making a switch earlier, but a first-year coach has to establish discipline within his program. If Croft broke rules, he deserved to be held accountable, even if the team suffered at the most important position.
Croft’s misdeeds were not made public, but Fleck didn’t hide his frustration. Croft returned to uniform last week at Purdue, but Fleck pushed back when asked if he’s willing to give Croft another chance in light of Rhoda’s ineffectiveness.
“I’ve got to be able to trust that you’re going to do all the right things before you lead this football team,” Fleck said.
Fleck defended his decision again this week by calling Rhoda “the best quarterback we have right now,” which was an alarming statement.
Fleck changed course after watching Rhoda (5-for-12 passing for 53 yards) make several costly mistakes in the first half. The offense’s second series highlighted his issues.
Michigan State punter Jake Hartbarger fumbled the ball, and the Gophers recovered at the 3-yard line. Rhoda fumbled the snap on first down but recovered. He then misfired twice on consecutive passes, forcing the Gophers to settle for a field goal.
Rhoda also botched a handoff to Shannon Brooks deep in Gophers territory that led to a Michigan State touchdown. On another series, Rhoda went to one knee while catching a shotgun snap that was slightly off the mark, resulting in a loss of 6 yards.
Fleck had seen enough.
Croft gave the offense an immediate spark by completing a 21-yard pass to Tyler Johnson on his first throw. Momentum stalled a few plays later on a poor decision and unlucky break that resulted in an interception.
Croft tried to squeeze a pass into tight coverage along the sideline. His elbow was hit by a Michigan State lineman as he released the ball. The result was a pop-up pass thrown well short for an easy interception.
Croft might not be a long-term answer beyond this season, but he gives the offense a threat as a runner on read-option plays. Rhoda refused to keep the ball in situations that screamed for it, which allowed defenses to smother Gophers running backs. Croft’s ability to run should keep defenses more honest.
And there’s another issue. The Gophers also need a major upgrade in the passing department. They’re ranked 110th nationally in passing. Opponents don’t fear their passing game so they can commit extra defenders to stop the run.
That deficiency becomes especially glaring on nights like Saturday when the Gophers fall behind by double digits and have to play catch-up. Croft made the game interesting late, but that is little consolation after another loss.