KJ Maye dived into the end zone, sending a packed TCF Bank Stadium to its feet, a flurry of white towels dancing in the dark humidity.
Unfortunately for Minnesota, the 22-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Mitch Leidner with 1:32 left on the clock was too little too late. A subsequent onside kick flopped and on the first night of the season, the 23-17 loss to No. 2 TCU was instead characterized by missed opportunities by the offense in the biggest opener of coach Jerry Kill’s tenure.
While the Gophers’ defense kept TCU’s lauded offense in check with a couple of timely sacks, a forced fumble, an interception and clutch plays, the home team’s offense couldn’t take advantage of its opportunities.
With the Gophers trailing 10-0 in the second quarter, Leidner led his team 55 yards to the 6-yard line. But senior running back Rodrick Williams Jr. fumbled and the ball bounced to the back of the end zone and was recovered by TCU.
“Offensively you look at some of the opportunities we missed,” Leidner said. “There are definitely plays we’d like to have back, but we are going to keep moving forward and keep getting better.”
Overall, the Horned Frogs compiled 449 yards to Minnesota’s 341. Leidner misfired badly on a handful of passes and finished with just 19 completions in 35 attempts for 197 yards. Two near misses on deep balls to Maye and Eric Carter proved costly. A pair of fumbles slowed momentum to a crawl. And when the Gophers looked as they might finally have their feet under them in the third quarter, they followed up a score by redshirt freshman Rodney Smith with a critical three-and-out.
As the Gophers attempt to develop Leidner and move on from the loss of three major offensive options — Maxx Williams, Isaac Fruechte and David Cobb to the NFL — Thursday showed there is still plenty of figuring to do.
The wheels may already be turning. After Williams’ turnover, he was promptly replaced by Smith, who had 88 yards on 16 rushes.
“Coach Kill said if in the first game you’re not nervous, you’re not human,” Smith said. “So I guess I’m a machine.”
Minnesota’s defense clamped down, but the offense kept handing the ball back. Earlier, the Gophers watched Trevone Boykin pass for an 11-yard touchdown two plays after the first fumble, on a Leidner sack.
That trend that would continue.