When everything falls into place for a college football coach, life becomes a whole lot easier. And that was the case Thursday night for P.J. Fleck, after his Gophers opened the season with a 48-10 rout of New Mexico State.
Not only did the Gophers win by a comfortable margin, they did so with a roster that features 60 freshmen. Once the game was safely in control in the fourth quarter, Fleck inserted his freshmen-heavy second-string offense and defense, getting the groups some experience.
“We accomplished everything we wanted to accomplish if the situation turned out to be what it was and the score turned out to be what it was,” Fleck said. “We got a lot of players playing time. ... We were able to pull some of our starters but still get a lot of time and a lot of plays.”
Thanks to a 28-point second quarter, the Gophers put the game’s issue in doubt and were able to play 27 freshmen — 15 true freshmen and 12 redshirt freshmen. Here are the ones who stood out:
• Zack Annexstad, QB: The walk-on wasn’t sharp right away. He completed only one of his first four passes before throwing a first-quarter touchdown pass to Tyler Johnson. Then Annexstad showed that he is a true freshman, fumbling a shotgun snap that New Mexico State recovered and converted for a tying touchdown.
Instead of going into a shell, Annexstad regrouped, even telling Fleck that everything would be all right.
“I looked at him and said, ‘We’re going to be all right, huh?’ ” Fleck said. “Usually it’s me telling them, ‘Hey, you’re going to be OK.’ That’s his personality. It’s different. And I like it.”
Annexstad backed up those words by leading three second-quarter TD drives. He completed six of seven passes for 132 yards and a TD in that span. In the first half, he went 10-for-16 for 162 yards and two TDs. He wasn’t as accurate in the second half, going 6-for-17 for 58 yards, but a 38-point win in a collegiate debut is nothing to sneeze at.
• Rashod Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell, WRs: The difference between the 2017 Gophers and the 2018 version was no more apparent than at this position, where young talent showed it can make an impact. Bateman, a true freshman, tied for the team lead with five catches for 52 yards, including a 25-yard reception that ignited the Gophers’ go-ahead drive early in the second quarter. Autman-Bell was a training camp standout last year before suffering a season-ending foot injury. He debuted with four catches for 43 yards, including two third-down conversions.
“We’ve got some wideouts on the outside that can make some plays. Three of them are freshmen,” Fleck said, including redshirt Demetrius Douglas. “They’re going to be around a long time.”
• Blaise Andries, RG: The Marshall, Minn., native was the Gophers’ top in-state recruit in the 2017 class, and he showed why in the second quarter. On Seth Green’s go-ahead 9-yard TD run out of the wildcat formation, the 6-5, 315-pound Andries had a beautifully brutal pancake block on an Aggies linebacker to give Green a path toward the end zone.
• Mohamed Ibrahim, RB: He ran nine times for 101 yards, the most for a Gopher in his debut since Thomas Hamner had 158 yards vs. Northeast Louisiana in 1996. But Ibrahim injured his left leg on his final carry, a 74-yarder that set up the Gophers’ final TD.
• Terell Smith, CB: It wasn’t only offensive freshmen who excelled in the opener. Smith, a true freshman, started and tied for the team lead with eight tackles, along collecting a team-best three pass breakups.
The efforts of those freshmen, and others, pleased Fleck.
“I went back in a chart of what I wanted to do, and if this could happen, I wanted to do it. We almost checked every single box,” Fleck said. “That’s what I wanted out of the first game.”
Randy Johnson covers Gophers and college football for the Star Tribune. email@example.com Twitter: @RJstrib