Corvallis, Ore. – Separation was the theme of Saturday night as the Gophers football team took to the road to face Oregon State.
For Minnesota’s offense, separation came in the form of the quarterback battle, in which senior Conor Rhoda took a big step forward by leading the Gophers to a 48-14 victory over the Beavers at Reser Stadium.
“Very excited about the outcome of the game,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said after improving to 2-0. “… It’s not about the result but how we played. … They executed the game plan perfectly.”
And for Minnesota’s defense, separation was what it did to Oregon State and the football, forcing three Beavers turnovers, which Rhoda and Co. cashed in for 17 points.
“That was huge,” said linebacker Jonathan Celestin, who recovered one of the three fumbles. “We tried to make sure we got at the ball as much as we could.”
Rhoda had a sizzling first half, completing five of six passes for 134 yards and a touchdown and leading the Gophers on three scoring drives. He played deep into the fourth quarter, finishing 7-for-8 for 158 yards as the Gophers rolled to the 34-point win over the Beavers (1-2).
“[This] is the first time I watched Conor Rhoda control the football team,” Fleck said. “… I thought he led better than he ever has.”
Fleck, however, wouldn’t go as far as saying that Rhoda had won the QB job over sophomore Demry Croft. “I didn’t say that,” Fleck responded when ask if the position is settled.
Croft had a costly fumble deep in Gophers territory in the second quarter that led to a Beavers TD. He tried to pick up the ball rather than fall in it to recover it.
“One of the reasons I didn’t play Demry in the second half [until late] was because he tried to pick it up,” Fleck said. “These are life lessons and football lessons we have to learn.”
Croft didn’t enter the game again until 3 minutes, 46 seconds remained in the fourth quarter with the Gophers up by 28 points. But he made that late appearance count, running for a 64-yard TD with 2:53 left in the fourth quarter.
Shannon Brooks (17 carries, 91 yards) scored three touchdowns and Rodney Smith (30 carries, 92 yards) had one TD as the Gophers’ run game took over in the second half.
“Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. Wow. … Wow. … Wow,” Fleck emphasized.
The Gophers possessed the ball for 38:16, more than 16 minutes more than the Beavers, with Minnesota’s offensive line asserting itself after a tough opening night performance.
“They were awesome,” Rhoda said of the line. “… Coach [Kirk] Ciarrocca [offensive coordinator] was saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to mash that thing up the middle.’ Once [the Beavers defense] stopped being able to stop us from doing that, I knew were going to kind of take the life out of them.”
It was Rhoda and sophomore wide receiver Tyler Johnson who injected life into the Gophers early for a second consecutive game.
On Minnesota’s second possession, Rhoda made his first pass count by finding Johnson on a post pattern for a 67-yard touchdown play. Like last week’s opener, Johnson cut to the middle and outraced the Beavers defense for his second TD of the season.
Rhoda set up the play with a 6-yard gain after dropping back to pass on third-and-3.
Johnson would finish with four catches for 127 yards after his six-catch, 141-yard effort in the season opener against Buffalo.
The Gophers got a takeaway on Oregon State’s next possession when Noah Togiai caught a pass but fumbled after being hit by safety Duke McGhee. Minnesota’s Kiondre Thomas recovered at the Gophers 45.
Rhoda and the Gophers quickly converted the turnover into a field goal and a 10-0 lead.
Rhoda began the drive with a 5-yard run while being flushed from the pocket — his second positive scramble of the quarter. He then found Smith out of the backfield for a 22-yard gain to the OSU 33, and then hooked up with Johnson for 19. But the drive stalled at the Beavers 8, and Emmit Carpenter kicked a 26-yard field goal.
The Gophers got another turnover on the Beavers’ next possession when Gary Moore sacked Jake Luton, forcing a fumble that Kamal Martin recovered at the OSU 24. Some tough yards up the middle by Smith and Brooks gave Minnesota the ball at the 8. A pass interference call on OSU put the Gophers at the 2, and Brooks powered in for the touchdown and 17-0 lead 10 seconds into the second quarter.
With rain beginning to fall, Oregon State mounted its first productive drive of the game. The Beavers drove from their 20 to Minnesota’s 25 before the drive stalled. Instead of going for the field goal, the Beavers ran a fake, and Timmy Hernandez hit a sliding Tuli Wily-Matagi for the first down to the 17. Three plays later, Luton found Jordan Villamin in the corner of the end zone for a 16-yard TD reception that trimmed the Minnesota lead to 17-7 with 9:10 left in the half.
With Croft in for his second possession, the sophomore fumbled and Oregon State’s Bright Ugwoeghu recovered at the Gophers 17. After a pass interference penalty on Jacob Huff, Beavers running back Trevorris Johnson plowed in from the 2 to cut the lead to 17-14 with 8:33 left in the half.
Rhoda returned to the game on the next series, and the Gophers promptly marched down the field. A 22-yard hookup with Johnson, followed by back-to-back 17- and 16-yard runs by Brooks and Smith moved the ball to the 13. But Smith was stuffed twice for losses and was called for a chop block personal foul. Carpenter salvaged points on the drive by kicking a 49-yard field goal for a 20-14 lead with 2:41 left in the half.
The Gophers got a takeaway when Thomas Barber forced a fumble by Ryan Nall and Celestin recovered at the OSU 14. Three players later, Smith scored from the 1 for a 27-14 lead.
A drive aided by a Beavers targeting penalty ended when Brooks bulled in from the 2 for a 34-14 lead. Brooks added a 1-yard TD run with 5:24 left, capping a 15-play, 77-yard drive covering 9:24.