First impressions with anything in life can be tricky, and sometimes misleading. But first impressions are all we have to go on after watching the Gophers football opener Thursday night, and two distinct themes flashed brightly.
Rashod Bateman is a special talent. And the rest of the offense has a lot of work to do.
And do it quickly, because a season that began with heightened expectations nearly came crashing to a halt after one game thanks to a sloppy, out-of-sync performance that could have had disastrous consequences in terms of re-engaging fans.
A late gift turnover allowed the Gophers to avoid calamity and then exhale deeply after squeaking out a 28-21 win over FCS member South Dakota State at TCF Bank Stadium.
The stadium was mostly packed at the start of the game but lost roughly 40% of fans by the fourth quarter, a reminder that school marketers might want to keep that flash sale of $10 football tickets handy.
First, the good news: Bateman.
He was more than good. The sophomore wide receiver was electric, basically a one-man show while the rest of the offense sputtered.
Bateman did all his damage in the first half with five catches for 132 yards and a one-handed touchdown catch in the final minute. That one was a thing of beauty.
The ball floated high in the air as Bateman turned on his afterburner to gain separation from his defender down the sideline. He stuck his left arm out, snatched the ball at the 5-yard line with one hand and nestled it into his body as he crossed the goal line.
“A lot of people are going to ask me how I did that,” Bateman said. “The answer is I don’t know.”
Senior receiver Tyler Johnson will be playing in the NFL next season, but opposing defenses will have to think twice about focusing so much attention on him this season. Bateman is an awfully nice 1A option on the other side of the field.
His 42-yard touchdown underscored what those around the program have been saying publicly and privately since Bateman walked on campus last year: He’s a game changer who combined with Johnson give the Gophers a dynamic 1-2 receiving punch.
Bateman’s stellar opener came two weeks after the death of his uncle.
“He was like a father figure to me,” Bateman said. “Tonight I wanted to go out and play for him.”
Bateman returned this season 30 pounds heavier after changing his diet and spending a full offseason in the weight room. Now 6-2 and 210 pounds, he has added muscle to go with his high-end speed, which he showed off in the first half. He turned two short catches into gains of 24 and 31 yards by juking his defender and then sprinting for extra yardage.
Now, the discouraging part: Everything else.
The offense received volumes of hype in fall camp based on a strong finish to 2018 and the return of so many starters and talent at skill positions. The first step was unimpressive.
The offensive line looked surprisingly overmatched against SDSU’s stunts and pressure. Sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan threw an interception in the first quarter when he stared down Bateman and didn’t see the safety. The running game produced only 132 yards. And Johnson was mostly a nonfactor with three catches for 28 yards.
Again, it’s one game and teams often look out of sync in openers, but one expected to see more firepower from a veteran unit.
Especially up front. Their offensive line is massive (averaging 340 pounds) but being size XXXL doesn’t mean the defense is simply going to lay down into the fetal position.
The Jackrabbits consistently fooled the Gophers with stunts, which led to free runs at Morgan and not much running room for their tailbacks. The whole operation looked out of sorts, which presumably will improve as players get used to game tempo again.
The Gophers did just enough offensively to start 1-0, but this won’t cut it moving forward, obviously. They’ll need more than circus catches from Bateman to become the offense that everyone expects to see.