GOPHERS INSIDER Megan Ryan
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck learned an important lesson about football a long time ago.
“A win’s a win,” he said. “There’s hard wins. There are no bad wins.”
That’s the message he relayed to his team Thursday after the Gophers outlasted South Dakota State 28-21 at TCF Bank Stadium in the season opener. And, well, he has a point. A shaky performance might have tempered some fans’ wild expectations for this season. But ultimately, the Gophers are 1-0 with dreams intact.
South Dakota State, though, probably wishes the reverse was true, as this loss likely feels pretty bad to the Jackrabbits.
The visiting team never let the Gophers gain momentum. Part of that was the Gophers’ own offensive woes, particularly when it came to blocking for the running backs and protecting sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan. But while the Jackrabbits stayed close and even eked out a one-point lead late in the game, turnovers foiled their upset.
In his college debut, South Dakota State’s J’Bore Gibbs committed two sins: Throwing a pick-six in the third quarter that extended the Gophers’ lead and fumbling a handoff in the fourth quarter when his team held a one-point advantage. The Gophers eventually turned that last mistake into the winning touchdown.
The Jackrabbits missed several other opportunities, though, that could have taken some of the responsibility off their new quarterback. A 99-yard kick return for a touchdown just before halftime was called back because of a holding penalty. An illegal block in the back also wiped out a third-quarter touchdown pass.
That third quarter was a rough one for the Gophers. South Dakota State outscored them 14-7, posting 190 yards of offense to Minnesota’s 20.
“We were tested, and our players passed the test,” Fleck said. “And whether we won by 40 or 20 or seven, we won. Now, are there a lot of things we have to get better at? Yes.”
He said the way South Dakota State took star receiver Tyler Johnson out of the game — allowing for a stellar performance from Rashod Bateman — forced the Gophers’ play-action game, making the Gophers run the ball more on the run-pass option. Fleck also commented on the inconsistent blocking that stifled the running game and exposed Morgan to two sacks. Fleck said he needs to do a better job to elicit more from the offensive line.
Defensively, the Gophers missed senior linebacker Kamal Martin, who served a second suspension after missing last season’s Quick Lane Bowl for a violation of team rules. That might have caused some players, such as safety Antoine Winfield Jr., to try to overcompensate. Defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere said the Jackrabbits’ offensive line was “extremely disciplined” and their running backs were “explosive and elusive,” which caused some headaches for the D-line.
The main problem the Gophers should focus on correcting, though, is more overarching and maybe even a little contradictory to Fleck’s first point. There are no bad wins, but the Gophers certainly need to win better.
The Gophers managed an 18-play, 91-yard drive through more than 10 minutes in the second quarter, and Fleck called that his team’s “style of football,” along with “explosive plays.” But the Gophers weren’t consistent in that identity, following up that monster scoring drive with a three-and-out.
“You keep somebody around like that, keep somebody around instead of putting the game away,” Fleck said. “We have the ability … if we do have leads, to put people away. We just have to figure out among our whole team, how are we going to be able to do that?”
Whether generalized or not, though, Morgan said his coach’s simple statement resonated with the team.
“That was a big win for us because it was a hard one,” Morgan said. “… We had to fight through a lot of ups and downs, a lot of adversity. But it’s going to make us a better football team.”