The Gophers football team returned to the sideline for the national anthem Saturday after spending that time in the locker room before recent games.

For the season’s first three games, the Gophers stood on the sideline for the anthem, as they had done in previous years. But Game 4 was at Penn State, where teams are instructed to delay their field entrance until after the anthem.

Gophers coach Tracy Claeys said he liked that approach, so the Gophers stayed in the locker room for the next six games during the anthem. Some critics viewed this as unpatriotic, and others saw it as a preemptive move to avoid anthem protests by players.

“The last couple weeks, I got a few letters,” Claeys said. “And it was never done intentionally to do anything to be disrespectful towards anybody. In the end, it was probably good that I got a few of those letters because it does remind you who it’s for and what it’s about.

“And had I known that that had been the case, we wouldn’t have changed it. I made it strictly on a football decision because I like the fact of getting out of the locker room and playing. But it is a special time before the game, and it’s the right decision to put them back on the field for what our national anthem stands for.”

Rhoda walks early

Gophers backup quarterback Conor Rhoda is a redshirt junior this season, but he was honored Saturday as part of Senior Day, signaling the end of his time with the program.

Rhoda walked on with the Gophers out of Cretin-Derham Hall and was placed on scholarship this year. But according to people familiar with Rhoda’s situation, the coaches notified him that they couldn’t guarantee him a scholarship for next year.

Rhoda is on track to graduate this fall with a degree in business and marketing education. He plans to explore options to join another program as a graduate transfer, as he still has one year of eligibility remaining.

Rhoda has a strong arm, but he’s a pocket passer, and Claeys says he wants more mobility from his starting quarterbacks. With Mitch Leidner nearing the end of his Gophers career, dual-threat quarterbacks Seth Green and Demry Croft are expected to compete for the starting job next spring.

Other early departures

The Gophers honored 13 seniors before Saturday’s game, along with eight other players who are leaving the program after this season with eligibility remaining.

That list includes offensive linemen Chad Fahning, Matt Leidner and Luke Rasmussen, defensive lineman Julien Kafo, tight end Duke Anyanwu, linebacker Ray Dixon, wide receiver Mike Conway and kicker Andrew Harte.

“All those kids are seniors, or all of them will have their degrees by summer,” Claeys said. “So they’ll graduate and move on.”

New attendance lows

The Gophers drew an announced crowd of 38,162, their smallest in eight seasons at TCF Bank Stadium. The team’s previous smallest attendance in the stadium was 44,194 for Michigan State on Nov. 24, 2012.

Average attendance for seven home dates this season was 43,814, which was the smallest since 2002, when the Gophers drew an average of 41,785 at the Metrodome. The team’s previous smallest average attendance at TCF Bank Stadium was 46,637 in 2012.

Last year, when the stadium had an expanded capacity for the Vikings, the Gophers averaged 52,355.

Etc.

• Vincent Calhoun replaced Jared Weyler, out because of a torn triceps.

• Cornerback KiAnte Hardin did not play in the second half, but Claeys did not have an injury update on him or wide receiver Tyler Johnson.