P.J. Fleck named Conor Rhoda his starting quarterback this week, officially ending his experiment with a two-man rotation. That didn’t mean Fleck flipped him keys to the kingdom and said, “Here, go crazy, young man.”
Fleck picked a chef. He didn’t change the recipe.
“We are going to run the football,” he said. “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that we play to the strengths of our football team.”
To no surprise, a conservative approach remained after resolution in their quarterback platoon. Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca kept an unbalanced game plan with an emphasis on grinding down defenses with the running game.
That plan worked like a charm again Saturday in a 34-3 victory against Middle Tennessee at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers stuck to their script — 47 runs to 18 passes — in wearing down another overmatched defense.
The question now becomes, can they continue to follow this template with similar success against Big Ten competition or will the coaching staff gradually expand Rhoda’s role as a passer?
Fleck sounds like he wants to dive deeper into the playbook, but only if players earn that trust.
“I want to be able to get more people involved,” he said. “But right now we’re doing what it takes to win. Do I think that’s going to be enough? I think we’ve got to continue to become more balanced. But that means other people have to be able to make plays.”
A run-centric focus can flourish if their defense continues to play as fast and as opportunistic as the Gophers have looked the first three weeks. Tougher tests await, though.
The Gophers really weren’t in any danger of losing because their defense smelled blood against a Middle Tennessee offense that played without starting quarterback Brent Stockstill and then lost its best player, receiver Richie James, to injury early in the first quarter. The Blue Raiders looked overwhelmed without those two on the field.
The Gophers offense chugged along like a locomotive. Nothing fancy. Just workmanlike.
They had attempted only 40 passes total their first two games, which ranked 108th nationally. Ciarrocca followed that same blueprint by calling 10 runs and only one pass on the opening drive.
Basically, the script went like this: Rodney Smith right, Smith left, Smith up the middle.
In the second half, the script changed to Kobe McCrary right, McCrary left, McCrary up the gut.
The Gophers played without Smith’s tag-team partner, Shannon Brooks, sidelined because of an undisclosed injury.
Smith carried the offense on his shoulders in the first half. He rushed for 107 yards on 16 carries.
Smith staggered off the field after taking a big hit on the final play of the half. He needed help to the locker room and didn’t return to the game.
Former Gophers coach Glen Mason coined the phrase “pair and spare” in describing his ideal setup at the running back position. He wanted three viable options.
Without their pair, the Gophers turned to their spare, McCrary, a bulldozer at 240 pounds.
“That wasn’t a spare tire,” Fleck said. “That was a monster truck Bigfoot tire.”
McCrary equaled Smith’s rushing output with 107 yards on 23 carries with three touchdowns. He hardly looked like a third-string running back.
Rhoda, meanwhile, played the role of game manager. He attempted only 18 passes and finished with a modest 122 yards — 50 yards coming on a short catch, long run by tight end Nate Wozniak.
The coaching staff hasn’t asked Rhoda to test himself much as a passer. His menu mostly revolves around screens, slants and dump-offs. Very few deep shots.
The strategy hasn’t been sexy, but it’s been effective.
“On offense, we’ve got to be a lot more creative,” Fleck said.
Maybe that will happen as Rhoda gains more experience or receivers other than Tyler Johnson prove capable of making plays consistently.
Their nonconference tuneups are over, and the Gophers running game and defense look ready for Big Ten competition. The passing game remains a big question mark.