The second year of the P.J. Fleck Era of Gophers football began Thursday night at TCF Bank Stadium with a 48-10 romp over New Mexico State. Though the Gophers started slowly on offense, a 28-point second quarter doused any upset hopes the Aggies might have had. Here are three takeaways from the game:
1. Zack Annexstad grew as the game went on: When a true freshman walk-on quarterback starts a season opener, you know a college football team doesn’t exactly have a stocked cupboard at the all-important position. But Annexstad acquitted himself well on Thursday night. Though he threw incompletions on three of his first four passes, he started to find a groove on the Gophers third possession when he connected with Chris Autman-Bell for a 14-yard gain on third-and-6 and then hit Tyler Johnson for a 7-yard TD pass.
As freshmen do, Annexstad made a mistake, fumbling a shotgun snap that New Mexico State recovered and cashed in for a touchdown.
Undaunted, Annexstad told Fleck that things 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 then responded by leading three TD drives and completing six of seven passes for 132 yards and a TD during that span.
Winfield is a difference-maker: Think the Gophers missed Antoine Winfield Jr. for the final eight games last year? The sophomore safety made a big impact in his first game back from a hamstring injury. Along with making five tackles, Winfield had the play that took any fight out of the Aggies. With the Gophers up 21-10, Winfield returned a punt 76 yards for a touchdown, a play in which he blasted through five would-be tacklers.
“First, I gotta give credit to everyone on Savages, which is our punt return team,’’ Winfield said. “I just remember catching the ball and I ran up the middle. Somebody tried to tackle me, and I just bounced off and remember seeing daylight.’’
Said Fleck, “It’s nice to have him back on the field, isn’t it?”
Smith can wear down a defense: While Annexstad improved after the slow start, he can give a big tip of the hat to senior running back Rodney Smith, who tenderized the Aggies defense while rushing for 94 yards in the second quarter. He averaged 9.4 yards per carry during the Gophers’ three second-quarter drives that turned the game.
“We built a little bit of confidence and made plays,’’ said Smith, who had 189 all-purpose yards and surpassed 4,000 for his career. “We just had to get flowing and get in the groove. A couple of explosive plays got us going.’’