The balance between present and future, between reliability and potential, and between procedure and pragmatism played out Saturday night at TCF Bank Stadium.
The Gophers lost 30-27 to No. 21 Michigan State on a cold and rainy night in a game filled with twists and turns and one that likely featured a changing of the guard at quarterback and a changing of the mind of coach P.J. Fleck.
With Minnesota winless after two Big Ten games and senior quarterback Conor Rhoda struggling into the second quarter, Fleck summoned sophomore Demry Croft off the bench to take the offensive reins. This was a big step for Fleck, who had suspended Croft on Sept. 12 for an unspecified violation of team rules. Croft missed two games before rejoining the team for last week’s trip to Purdue.
Croft rewarded his coach’s newfound confidence in him by rallying the Gophers from a 23-6 deficit with three fourth-quarter touchdown passes to Tyler Johnson. Two of those came in the final 4 minutes, 55 seconds, cutting the lead to 30-27 and injecting hope of an upset that only ended when the Spartans recovered an onside kick with 1:06 left.
Fleck wouldn’t commit yet to Croft starting Saturday against Illinois, saying he’d decide during the week. But signs certainly point to a new starter against the Illini.
“What I saw out there in the last 10 minutes is a team I couldn’t wait to see!” Fleck said in the postgame news conference, his voice rising. “I couldn’t wait to see that!”
What Fleck saw in the first quarter prompted the change from Rhoda — who was reliable in the 3-0 nonconference start but inconsistent in the three Big Ten games — to Croft, whose athletic ability gives the Gophers offense more versatility.
Early, the Gophers had the ball at the Michigan State 3-yard line, but Rhoda dropped the first-down shotgun snap for a 4-yard loss that led to a field goal instead of a touchdown. Later in the quarter, Rhoda handed the ball off to Shannon Brooks when he should have kept the ball, leading to Brooks’ fumble. Michigan State recovered on the Minnesota 8 and quickly scored for a 10-3 lead.
“We had a lot of things happen in the first quarter — things that shouldn’t happen,” Fleck said Sunday during his WCCO Radio appearance. “I felt like, this probably would be a good time to be able to see what Demry can do. And once he went in there, he did a really nice job.”
Croft entered with 6:38 left in the second quarter and connected on his first two passes for 27 yards to Michigan State’s 35 but threw an interception. With the Gophers trailing 17-6 at halftime, Fleck figured Croft’s athletic ability would help in the second half. “I felt with his legs, we’d be able to create more,” the coach said.
Croft’s running did help. He carried seven times for 31 yards, and this season has 127 yards on 14 carries, a 9.1-yard average. Rhoda, by comparison, has 18 yards on 17 rushes. And through the air in the fourth quarter, Croft went 8-for-14 for 131 yards and three TDs.
“He showed what he can do. He can create,” Fleck said. “He can take a broken play and get out of there. He can make the right throws.”
Said Croft, “It’s a blessed feeling to be out there with the guys and just keep rowing the boat and seeing the smile on everybody’s faces.”
Still, the coach emphasized that Croft must continue rebuilding trust.
“I’ve seen a difference,” Fleck said of Croft since his return. “It’s too early to say I’ve seen a big difference. Trust is built over a very long period of time. It’s not built on, ‘OK, I won’t do that.’ Trust is very hard to gain and very easy to lose. That’s going to be a process as we continue to go forward.”
When asked what he had learned from the suspension, Croft repeated one of Fleck’s mantras.
“Just change your best and grow every day and work on that,” he said.
Randy Johnson covers college football for the Star Tribune. firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @RJStrib