The Gophers football team’s strengths offensively were pretty clear going into coach P.J. Fleck’s debut Thursday night against Buffalo.
No matter how much of a question mark the starting quarterback situation was, Fleck could count on a kicker who received preseason All-America honors and arguably the best running back tandem in the Big Ten, right?
Not so fast.
Fleck eventually ditched the run game when Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks couldn’t break free late in the fourth quarter. The passing attack was the only bright spot early, but fizzled as well. Kicker Emmit Carpenter could have provided a bigger cushion, but he missed his first two field goals in a 17-7 win Thursday against the Bulls at TCF Bank Stadium.
“We did what we had to do to win the football game,” Fleck said. “What we started to do was we take two steps forward, and then we take a half step back. We weren’t good enough tonight to recover from that.”
Heavy praise came for Smith and Brooks this offseason after the pair combined for 1,808 yards and 21 touchdowns last season. The Gophers, who rushed for 169 yards Thursday, even went on a four-game Big Ten winning streak, eclipsing the 200-yard rushing mark three times against Maryland, Rutgers and Purdue. But Minnesota failed to surpass 150 yards rushing in the last four games of the 2016 season.
Smith finished with 23 carries for 76 yards. Brooks had 18 for 69. Not terrible numbers, but their longest runs of the night were 10 and 16 yards, respectively. Neither back averaged more than 4 yards per carry.
“I think we ran the ball OK,” Gophers quarterback Conor Rhoda said. “We just didn’t get those big runs everybody’s used to seeing from Rodney and Shannon. We just kept telling them that hole is going to come.”
On a key drive with 10 minutes left in the game, and the Gophers needing to build on its seven-point lead, Minnesota showed it had lost faith in its run game. Rhoda threw the ball on first, second and third down, and moments later Ryan Santoso was back on to punt.
Gophers receiver Tyler Johnson had four catches for 72 yards on a drive in the middle of the second quarter. But back-to-back short runs by Smith on first-and-goal led to Rhoda’s interception, forcing a throw to his tight end on third down.
Carpenter was the Big Ten kicker of the year last season, when he missed only two of 24 field-goal attempts. But he matched that after a 36-yard attempt went wide in the fourth quarter. He also missed a 50-yarder.
But Carpenter’s 43-yard field goal with two minutes remaining at least provided the only scoring in the second half.
“I thought he came back with incredible resiliency,” Fleck said of Carpenter. “I’m proud of our guys for finishing the job. We have a lot to get better at and a lot to improve on.”