Fifty-four seconds. That’s how close the Gophers came to winning at Penn State, where their defense let the Nittany Lions drive for a tying field goal, setting up Saquon Barkley’s overtime gallop.
Thirteen yards. That’s how close the Gophers came to tying Iowa last week, when their offense — mostly dreadful all day — rallied for one last drive, only to fall short.
At 0-2 in Big Ten play, as they head to Maryland on Saturday, the Gophers refuse to accept that their West Division title hopes have been dashed.
“The one thing is you can’t hit a three-run homer,” coach Tracy Claeys said last week. “You know, one game at a time.”
Actually, what the Gophers need now is a grand slam. This next four-game stretch against Maryland, Rutgers, Illinois and Purdue has long been viewed as the soft part of their Big Ten schedule.
And here comes the pinch hitter. Conor Rhoda, a former walk-on from Cretin-Derham Hall, is making his first career start, as senior quarterback Mitch Leidner recovers from a concussion.
In his fourth year with the Gophers program, Rhoda has appeared in three games but attempted just two passes, completing one for 6 yards.
“He can sling the ball, trust me,” senior linebacker Nick Rallis said. “We’re fans of Rhoda on the defensive side because of what he’s done to us in practice.”
Dave Mona, from WCCO (830-AM), tried to recall the last time the Gophers started a relatively unknown quarterback under similar circumstances. He cited the 1973 Illinois game, when the Gophers had two injured quarterbacks — John Lawing and Tony Dungy — forcing them to turn to Gil Fash.
In four years, Fash had never taken a snap. That day at Illinois, he completed just two of 10 passes — with three interceptions. But the Illini fumbled six times.
“Late in the game, Fash faked a handoff, rolled out and hit tight end Dale Henricksen, who scored to give the Gophers [the] lead and an eventual 19-16 victory,” Mona wrote in an e-mail.
With coach Cal Stoll in his second season at Minnesota, that team had started 1-3 but finished with a four-game winning streak against teams from the bottom of the Big Ten, to go 7-4.
Now, in Claeys’ second season at the helm, Minnesota needs a similar burst. The seniors were part of one just three years ago, when the Gophers opened Big Ten play with losses to Iowa and Michigan. Jerry Kill had missed the Michigan game because of seizures, so Claeys took over as acting head coach. The Gophers reeled off their first four-game Big Ten winning streak since — yes, 1973 — beating Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana and Penn State.
It started with a 20-17 road upset at Northwestern, keyed by the defense. Saturday might require something similar, as the 4-1 Terps are 6½-point favorites.
“I don’t think anyone’s worried,” Rallis said of the 0-2 conference start. “We know what we have to do. We’re focusing on one game at a time. If you can do that, then you can start to pick up momentum and all of the sudden, those young guys will start to see what it is like.”
Despite Leidner’s injury, the Gophers are still heading into an inviting stretch. They sit No. 60 in the latest USA Today Sagarin Computer Ratings, and they’re about to face No. 57 Maryland, followed by No. 106 Rutgers, No. 90 Purdue and No. 73 Illinois.
Those four teams have combined to post a 2-7 Big Ten record, with both wins coming inside the cluster — Maryland’s 50-7 victory over Purdue, and Purdue’s three-point overtime win over Illinois.
That 43-point thrashing of Purdue two weeks ago, coupled with an overtime win at Central Florida one week earlier, raised Maryland’s credibility under first-year coach D.J. Durkin.
But the Terps fell back to earth last week in a 38-14 loss at Penn State. A Nittany Lions team that had rushed for fewer than 150 yards in 11 previous games broke free for 372 rushing yards, with Barkley notching 202.
“We need to win at the line of scrimmage [against Minnesota],” Durkin said. “We’ve got to stop the run on defense. We’ve got to be able to run the ball effectively and protect on the offensive line. I think that’s totally the key in this football game.”
A loss would extend this downward slope for the Gophers, and Claeys’ popularity with fans is already sinking. He wasn’t shy about his expectations heading into the season, saying the Gophers have reached the point where they should contend for a West Division title each November.
The Gophers already trail undefeated Nebraska by two games, but there are seven weeks remaining. Claeys told KFAN (100.3-FM) that he thinks the West Division winner will finish with two losses.
Asked about recalibrating goals, Claeys said: “I don’t know that we’re to that point yet. … Obviously there’s not much margin for error left, for us to be in the West [race], but we’ve just got to start winning football games.”