As weeks go, the one that ended Sunday was about as rough as they come around the Gophers football complex.
First and most important, the Gophers on Thursday got word that their former teammate Nick Connelly, who started five games at right tackle in 2017 before retiring from football because of concussions, had died from Burkitt’s lymphoma, an aggressive form of cancer. Connelly, who turned 22 last Monday, had received his diagnosis in June, and his passing hit the team hard.
Connelly’s death gives us a chance to examine perspective between real life and sports, but the games still will be played. And on Saturday, the Gophers opened the Big Ten season at Maryland. It didn’t go well for Minnesota, which suffered a 42-13 loss to a Terrapins team that romped all over the field, rushing for 315 yards and averaging 47 yards on their six touchdown plays.
Less than five minutes into the game, Antoine Winfield Jr., the Gophers’ extraordinary playmaking safety, suffered a left foot injury and did not return to the game.
On Sunday, bad news for the Gophers hit again: Winfield will not return this season.
“We are heartbroken for Antoine,’’ Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said in a statement.
Winfield will undergo surgery Monday, and the Gophers will seek a waiver from the NCAA for a sixth season of eligibility for the third-year sophomore upon season’s end. Fleck expressed confidence that the waiver will be granted.
If this sounds familiar, it should. Two weeks ago, senior running back Rodney Smith, a two-time team MVP, suffered a torn ACL in his left knee against Fresno State and will miss the season. The Gophers will seek a waiver for a sixth year of eligibility for Smith, too.
So, in the span of two weeks the Gophers lost their top defensive playmaker in Winfield and their top offensive weapon in Smith for the rest of the season. Where do they go from here?
“We have to grow up the young guys, faster, better,’’ Fleck said after the game. “I’ve got to be better.’’
This is the second year in a row that Winfield was lost for the season during the Big Ten opener against Maryland. Last year, a hamstring injury shelved him for the final eight games. He was granted a medical waiver after the 2017 season.
The loss of Winfield leaves the Gophers without a versatile athlete with the knack of making big plays. Against Fresno State, Winfield’s hustling, acrobatic interception in the end zone late in the fourth quarter secured Minnesota’s 21-14 win. In the season opener against New Mexico State, he had a jaw-dropping, 76-yard punt return for a touchdown during which he broke five tackles. Winfield will be especially missed on punt returns. Last year, the Gophers had 36 yards total in punt returns for the entire season. Winfield had three returns for 110 yards in three games this year.
Behind Winfield on the safety depth chart are true freshmen Jordan Howden, a walk-on who took over after the injury, and Eden Prairie’s Benny Sapp III.
On the fifth play from scrimmage, Winfield came up limping. He played in three more plays, hobbled after the play and was tended to on the field by trainers. He walked off but didn’t return to the game. When Winfield went out, Maryland scored on the game’s next play, igniting those big-play fireworks.
“This game is a very emotional game. He is a very emotional leader,’’ Fleck said Saturday. “When he’s on the field, everybody feels a lot better.’’
With the week’s news, the Gophers certainly hope for some better feelings to return.
Randy Johnson covers college football for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @RJStrib E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org