The Gophers football team entered its season opener with Buffalo as a 24-point favorite, so while the 17-7 victory wasn’t a bad outcome, there’s no doubt that the team is going to have to figure out how to score more points going forward to compete, especially in the Big Ten.
Former Gophers coach Glen Mason was doing the color commentary for the Big Ten Network telecast. He said that while he was surprised by the final, the biggest thing for a Gophers squad that is playing a ton of new players with a new coaching staff is to build momentum.
“I’ve said that all along,” Mason said. “They won tonight. A win is a win. When you look at their schedule, the toughness of the schedule is real loaded. They have to win early and build momentum, because those last five games are going to be really challenging.”
Mason added that even though the team had success last season, that meant nothing the second Thursday’s game began.
“Every season is independent,” he said. “You can’t say just because a team was 9-4 that they’re going to be 9-4 or better this year. They lost a lot of good players off of last year and lost a quarterback who had his ups and downs and was controversial in some regards in Mitch Leidner, but he played quarterback for four years.”
Going into the season a lot of the talk was about the QB situation. But it was surprising to note that from the Gophers’ final regular-season game against Wisconsin to Thursday’s opener against Buffalo, there were only three returning starters on defense in tackle Steven Richardson, linebacker Jonathan Celestin and safety Antoine Winfield Jr.
Still, that unit held the Bulls to only 262 yards of offense.
“They lost a lot out of that secondary from last year plus a couple of suspensions, and they didn’t have [safety Duke] McGhee in the first half so they were really thin in the secondary,” Mason said.
“But the best pass defense is a good pass rush. You look at it a year ago, and how many times they sacked the quarterback and got pressure on the quarterback. They didn’t do that tonight, and they have to get better.”
Faith in both QBs
Throughout the season, the Gophers’ quarterback situation is going to remain the biggest story line.
And both Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft had positives and negatives in the victory. Rhoda threw for 176 yards on 12 of 21 passes and hooked up with Tyler Johnson on a 61-yard touchdown, but he also had an interception in the end zone late in the first half, and the second half might have been much more comfortable had the Gophers come away with points there after driving to the Buffalo 5-yard line.
Croft was able to pass for 63 yards, rush for 32 yards and lead a TD drive as well.
“I don’t think [Fleck] really wants to use a two-quarterback system, but he hasn’t decided on one, yet,” Mason said. “So he thought it would be fair to let them both play tonight. I was impressed that he let them both play, and he gave confidence to both.
“I thought Conor Rhoda played better running that offense, but he had faith in Croft at the end of the game in the fourth quarter when the game was on the line. Not just going with the running backs but throw the football. I don’t think he’s definitively made a decision on who the quarterback is yet.”
Lack of run game
Going into the game there was no question Gophers fans believed it was going to be running backs Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith dominating, and while both rushed for over 70 yards, neither was dominant.
“I was surprised,” Mason said about the run game gaining 169 yards on 51 attempts, an average of 3.3 yards per carry. “Buffalo really struggled a year ago on defense stopping the run — I really am a big fan of both of those running backs, Smith and Brooks, and I thought they would have bigger plays, more consistent plays. The running backs, the offensive line, I’m not sure exactly what the problem was. But the running total tonight was not what I thought it would be.”
If there was a standout performance in the game it was Tyler Johnson’s first half at receiver. Last year as a freshman, he showed a lot of positive signs, grabbing 14 passes for 141 yards and a score in 13 contests. But he made a big leap in Thursday’s first half, when he had six receptions for 141 yards.
Mason said that while some might question why he slowed down in the second half, that misses the point.
“Everybody looks at it and says, ‘Geez, you catch six passes in the first half, what happened in the second half?’ ” he said. “But you have to give the defense credit, because maybe they’re doing some things to take him away. … P.J. was really high on Johnson coming into this game, and I can see why. The young man coming in from North High School is really good.”
One unpleasant surprise was the two missed field goals by Emmit Carpenter, one of the best kickers in college football last year. Still Mason said that his third kick, a 43-yarder with 2:05 to play, meant the most because it made it a two-score game.
“He’s the Big Ten Kicker of the Year in the conference, really good, made 22 of 24 last year, and I wasn’t surprised when he made the third one,” Mason said. “He’s an exceptional kicker, and who knows why he missed the first two? No one makes them all.”
When asked how he felt about switching off at quarterback throughout the game, Rhoda said he and Croft were prepared for it.
“It’s what we did in practice every day,” Rhoda said. “So obviously practice and games are much different. I did it a little bit when I was a junior in high school for two or three games, maybe, but it’s a new experience for the both of us.
“It’s something we’re learning totally on the fly and we’re just going to keep getting better every day and learning every day and we’ll see where it takes us.”
Rhoda said even though he had that key interception, he knew that didn’t mean he wouldn’t be playing the rest of the game, saying Fleck told them that they weren’t going to pulled based on one bad play.
“He made it very clear two weeks ago when he brought us into his office that this is not going to be a performance-based relationship, or I don’t know what you would call it with how this rotation is going to work. I knew that after that happened that it wasn’t going to affect how much I was going to play the rest of the game. He just pulled me over and talked really quickly about the look and basically talked about how they fooled me. It was just all about the response and came back out there and make the next throw.”
Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. firstname.lastname@example.org