MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota had a seven-point lead with about 80 seconds left last week, when Fresno State called the running back pass play from first-and-goal at the 4-yard line and tight end Jared Rice burst open in the back of the end zone.
Antoine Winfield Jr. slammed on the brakes once he recognized the trick from his safety position. He raced in reverse toward Rice as the ball hung in the air and turned his head from his right shoulder to his left at just the right time, before jumping to intercept the pass with one hand and planting his foot on the turf to establish possession before tumbling out of bounds.
Game over. Gophers win . For a guy with less than two full seasons of college experience, Winfield has developed into quite the star.
"I just went up and made the play," Winfield said, in his typical understated manner.
Minnesota (2-0), which hosts Miami of Ohio (0-2) on Saturday, badly missed Winfield last fall after a hamstring injury limited him to four games and he took a medical redshirt. Now he's the leader of a young secondary, quickly building an All-Big Ten resume. After his 76-yard punt return for a touchdown in the opening victory over New Mexico State , Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said he could see Winfield making cameos on offense in addition to his new role on special teams and his established presence in the back of the defense.
"He's an incredible player, but he's an even better person than the day he walked in here in my opinion," Fleck said. "He's grown a lot, and his maturity allows him to make that play. But also, he's got incredible genetics."
That would be Antoine Winfield Sr., the former Minnesota Vikings safety who was long considered one of the best tacklers in the NFL despite his 5-foot-9 frame. He was picked for three Pro Bowls over 14 years in the league.
Like his father, the third-year Gophers sophomore carries an instinct to shine and an attitude to lead, on top of his natural athleticism and toughness.
"He's an unbelievable player. We all know that. I can see it," said linebacker Thomas Barber. "I get to live with him, so it's cool to just be around and see how he acts after it too. He's just so humble about it too."
Here are some other key angles to follow in the Miami-Minnesota game:
REPLACING RODNEY: With senior running back Rodney Smith out for the rest of the season , joining fellow senior running back Shannon Brooks with knee injuries in the medical redshirt club for 2018, freshman Bryce Williams has emerged as the lead ball carrier. Mohamed Ibrahim and Jonathan Femi-Cole will also be in the mix.
Brooks, however, is expected to play this year. He can participate in up to four games without using up his eligibility, and he took part in contact drills this week in practice for the first time.
"Like a kid in the candy store, big smile on his face, because he was finally involved in some real football," Fleck said. "But it's going to take a little bit of time."
DOWN YEARS: Miami has the winningest program and the most conference titles (15) in MAC history. The proud history includes two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, former players in Sean McVay and John Harbaugh who are current NFL head coaches and of course a who's who list of former coaches like Paul Brown, Weeb Ewbank, Woody Hayes, Ara Parseghian and Bo Schembechler who went on to famous and successful careers on bigger stages.
The Redhawks are only 24-63 overall since the start of the 2011 season. They have, however, 10 players on offense and eight players on defense with 10 or more career starts, led by senior wide receiver James Gardner . Fleck recruited Gardner out of high school when he was at Western Michigan.
LOOKING BACK: Minnesota is 3-0 against Miami, all at home, but the victories in 2007 and 2011 only came by six points apiece. The 41-35 decision in triple overtime in 2007 was the only win for the Gophers in coach Tim Brewster's first season. Against MAC opponents, Minnesota is 31-4-1 all-time, last losing to Northern Illinois in 2010. The Redhawks will travel to play the Gophers again on Sept. 11, 2021.
PLAYING BIGGER: Miami is 12-39-2 against Big Ten teams, though the victory over Michigan State in 1994 was awarded by forfeit. The last win came in 2003 over Northwestern.
After losing to Marshall and Cincinnati at home to start the season, the Redhawks will face an even tougher test at Minnesota.
"They're big, physical, the model of what you think of when you think of Big Ten football," coach Chuck Martin said.