College Park, Md. – After the Gophers lost 42-13 to Maryland in their Big Ten opener on Saturday, coach P.J. Fleck fielded a handful of football questions. Then came one that was tougher.
How was the team dealing with the death of Nick Connelly?
Connelly, who started five games as a redshirt sophomore for the Gophers last year before retiring because of concussions, died Wednesday at 22 after battling Burkitt's lymphoma since June. Players got the news Thursday, and Fleck met with them the following day.
"The passing of Nick Connelly affected everyone on our football team," Fleck said. "This is a young man who is best friends with most of the guys on this team. When you have Burkitt's lymphoma, it moves quickly. A lot of our guys never really had a chance to say goodbye, and that's really difficult for young people.''
The Gophers paid tribute to Connelly, a former Red Wing High School standout, by wearing a helmet decal with his initials and lime-green wristbands, the color used to promote lymphoma awareness. Fleck's team also had a helmet decal honoring Jordan McNair, the Maryland offensive lineman who died of heatstroke following an offseason workout. In a show of support, Terrapins players also wore helmet decals honoring Connelly.
"It was a class-act move by their coaching staff and their administration and their university,'' Fleck said.
Fleck's voice cracked at times while discussing Connelly.
"He was a tremendous young man who influenced a lot of people on this football team, even the kids who did not know him,'' Fleck said. "… Those kids are incredibly emotional in the locker room right now because I know they wanted to do something for him — honoring them on how hard you play. I don't question how hard they played; they played their tail ends off. We just weren't good enough."
Linebacker Thomas Barber credited Connelly's parents, Chuck and Tami, for helping the team.
"We don't want to use his parents as too much support because obviously they need support, too, but they have been very good, especially to the people close to Nick. … That's a credit to Nick's parents through this tough time and just credit to how loving and supportive of Gopher football they are."
Added Fleck, "He was a very special individual. He will be missed. … Nick Connelly, he loved the University of Minnesota. He loved being a football player here, and he'll never be forgotten."
Ibrahim carries load
Redshirt freshman running back Mohamed Ibrahim returned to action after missing the past two games because of a left leg injury. He rushed 26 times for 95 yards, while last week's starter, true freshman Bryce Williams, carried seven times for 24 yards.
For Ibrahim, this game was a homecoming; he is from nearby Olney, Md. "I enjoyed it,'' he said. "Being back home, that was a big key. It was pretty cool.''
Fourth-down ups and downs
The Gophers converted their first five fourth-down situations of the season, including one by wildcat quarterback Seth Green, who had a 2-yard gain on fourth-and-2 in the first quarter, and one by Ibrahim on a 3-yard run on fourth-and-1 in the third quarter.
But the Gophers had two fourth-down conversions fall short in the fourth quarter when trailing 35-13. With Minnesota facing fourth-and-4 at the Maryland 8 on the first play of the fourth quarter, Annexstad was sacked and lost a fumble. With 9:04 left to play and the ball at the Maryland 9, RaVon Davis intercepted Annexstad's fourth-and-5 pass in the end zone.