MINNEAPOLIS — Many college coaches caution against making too much of early wins against nonconference opponents. Minnesota's P.J. Fleck, however, insisted he'll always remember his young team's performance against Fresno State on Saturday night.
Seth Green ran for two short touchdowns, including the game-winning 3-yard score late in the fourth quarter, and Antione Winfield Jr. sealed it with an interception off a trick play in the end zone as Minnesota held off the Bulldogs 21-14.
"This is one of those wins that can do a lot for your season," an emotional Fleck said.
After losing starting running back Rodney Smith to an injured leg early, the Gophers (2-0) led for most of the defense-dominated game before falling behind with eight minutes to play.
That's when Minnesota's young playmakers impressed.
True freshman Zack Annexstad made a great throw on third-and-9 to keep a fourth-quarter drive alive. Green, a redshirt sophomore, rumbled in for the winning score before throwing a 2-point conversion. And Winfield, after initially thinking he was beat, made the highlight interception with the Bulldogs four yards from a road win.
"It's kind of like a ride that you go on that you've never been on before," Fleck said. "It's all the twists and turns, there's that excitement level to it, but there's also that little bit of fear, too."
One first-and-goal from the 4 with 1:18 to play, Bulldogs quarterback Marcus McMaryion handed off to fullback Josh Hokit, who floated a pass toward Jared Rice in the corner of the end zone. But Winfield reached back with both hands, snagged the ball and somehow got his foot down in bounds for the touchback.
"I saw the ball come over and I just went high up under the ball," said Winfield, who added he thought he was beat on the play.
Annexstad completed 16 of 26 passes for 175 yards, but struggled to find a rhythm after losing starting Smith to a first-quarter injury. His third-down completion in the fourth easily overshadowed the struggles.
With all momentum with the Bulldogs (1-1), Annexstad scrambled right, came back left and threw high across his body to Tyler Johnson, who made the spectacular 13-yard catch on the sidelines to keep the drive alive.
"If we don't make that play, who knows how that game turns out," Fleck said. "Because up until that point, it was the most important play of the game, period. Because it was the next play and it changed the whole outcome."
The Gophers caught an extra break on the play when the officials hit the Bulldogs with a 15-yard sideline interference penalty, and Green scored the winning touchdown five players later, and even added a two-point conversion toss to Ko Kieft for some breathing room.
Emmit Carpenter hit two 50-yard field goals for the second time in his Minnesota career.
NOT THIS TIME
Coach Jeff Tedford said the Bulldogs successfully ran the same final play twice last year, with Hokit throwing a 65-yard touchdown pass against Incarnate Ward and a 16-yard score against Nevada. But the coach said Saturday night's pass was underthrown.
"It's a play we've run before and we were comfortable running it," McMaryion said. "You can't blame it on the play call at all. We had our opportunities in the first half and we didn't execute the way we should have."
NOT QUITE ENOUGH
McMaryion threw for 205 yards and two touchdowns, including a 45-yard score to KeeSean Johnson with 8:20 to play to give Fresno State a 14-13 lead. He also threw a 1-yard touchdown to Rice late in the third.
"I think I left a lot on the field that I could've taken advantage of more just by being more true to my progressions and staying within myself in the offense," McMaryion said.
Green scored his third and fourth touchdowns of the season after getting two similar short scores last week in their opener against New Mexico State. In all instances, Green lined up under center to receive the snap directly.
A week after scoring 79 points, the Bulldogs were held scoreless for nearly a full three quarters thanks to a Gophers defense that contained McMaryion into a series of a short-gain tosses all night long.
"I think it gives us something to think about," McMaryion said. "It's good that we had to face some adversity and see what our team is made of. Defense kept us in it the whole game, but we shouldn't have been in the position in the first place."
Minnesota responded well to a much stiffer challenge after blowing out New Mexico State in their opener, but the loss of Smith could hurt. Smith ran for 153 yards against the Aggies and had 12 yards from scrimmage before injuring his left leg after an 11-yard reception in the first quarter against the Bulldogs. The senior back was helped off the field, putting no weight on his injured leg, but stayed on the sidelines to encourage his teammates. After the game, Fleck did not share further details on Smith's status.
The Bulldogs face their second Power Five foe in as many weeks when they visit UCLA on Saturday. They'll play a Bruins team still looking for its first win after getting trounced by No. 6 Oklahoma 49-21.
Minnesota looks to start the season 3-0 for the second straight season when they host Miami (Ohio) on Saturday.