As coaching debuts go, P.J. Fleck’s first game at Minnesota will not go down as an artistic masterpiece.
Think of it more as “Dogs Playing Poker” — something you might hang in the basement but nothing you’d like fancy company to see.
Sure, Fleck’s Gophers gutted out a 17-7 victory over Buffalo in front of an announced crowd of 43,224 on Thursday night at TCF Bank Stadium.
And a pair of sophomores — Tyler Johnson on offense and Antoine Winfield Jr. on defense — showed they could be budding stars with their big plays.
But those who anticipated an easy win and a high-energy celebration of a new regime likely went home only partially satisfied. Instead, they got a tight, grind-it-out victory.
“It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to see — 17 points and a 10-point victory,” Fleck said. “That doesn’t matter to me. They found a way to win.”
The Gophers found their way by getting just enough from the quarterback duo of Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft, riding the running back tandem of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks through some tough yards, and relying on a defense to pitch a second-half shutout while Fleck and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca employed a play-it-safe approach.
“We had to do what we had to do to win the football game,” said Fleck, who was presented a game ball by athletic director Mark Coyle.
Entering Thursday’s opener, the main story line focused on the co-starters at quarterback. Rhoda, a senior from Cretin-Derham Hall, got the start and ended up with the better stats, completing 12 of 21 passes for 176 yards and a touchdown. His highlight came on the Gophers’ second possession, when he found Johnson on a deep slant, and the sophomore leaped to catch the ball and sped past the defense for a 61-yard score.
“The kid comes to play when the lights are brightest,” Rhoda said about Johnson, a former Minneapolis North standout who finished with six receptions for 141 yards.
Late in the second quarter, Rhoda and Johnson hooked up four times for 72 yards on promising drive that looked as if it would end with the Gophers building on a 14-7 lead. But Rhoda threw behind tight end Brandon Lingen on third-and-goal from the 5, and Buffalo’s Cameron Lewis intercepted the pass with 1:34 left in the half.
“They just fooled me,” Rhoda said of the Bulls. “I’ve got to throw a better ball to Brandon.”
Croft, meanwhile, led a first-quarter touchdown drive of his own that put the Gophers up 14-7. He finished 7-for-11 for 63 yards while rushing nine times for 32 yards.
“I thought they managed and handled the game almost better than I expected,” Fleck said of his quarterbacks.
Meanwhile, the Gophers defense did a lot of bending — Buffalo QB Tyree Jackson passed for 211 yards and a TD while receiver Anthony Johnson caught 11 passes for 140 yards and that TD — but it held in the second half. That enabled Fleck to go ultra-conservative.
“When it got later in the third and fourth quarter, the defense was playing phenomenal,” Fleck said.
No one more than Winfield, who had seven tackles and one sack, broke up a long flea-flicker that could have put Buffalo deep in Gophers territory and blocked a field-goal attempt.
“He’s just a heck of a ballplayer,” Fleck said. “… That kid loves football, and you can tell by the way he plays the game.”
With the Gophers milking a 14-7 lead early in the fourth quarter, Fleck was playing to grind out the victory, and the plan worked — to a point. The Gophers methodically drove to the Bulls 18, with Rhoda hitting a couple of sharp passes and Brooks and Smith earning tough yards. But Emmit Carpenter missed a 36-yard field-goal attempt — his second miss, as he also came up short from 50 in the first half, matching his total of misses from last season.
But the Minnesota defense was stout for the rest of the fourth quarter, and the Smith and Brooks combo wore down the Bulls. The Gophers drove to the Buffalo 26, but Brooks came up just short on a third-and-3. Fleck then sent in Carpenter, who redeemed himself with a 43-yard field goal for a 17-7 lead with 2:05 left.
That sent Fleck and the Gophers home winners, even if the method wasn’t how they had pictured it.
“I learned a very valuable lesson,’’ the coach said. “Never not appreciate a win — no matter how you get it.’’