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Minnesota Football vs Rutgers: Rodney Smith, The Bad, and The Ugly

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The Golden Gophers have problems everywhere except for the running back position — where a star is rising.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Golden Gophers delivered one of their trademark “wins that felt more like a loss” with a last-second field goal to beat the Rutgers Scarlet Knights 34-32 and avoid an embarrassing loss on Homecoming. Crisis averted! Before we attempt to purge all memory of this god awful game, let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly from Tracy Claeys’ signature win over a Big Ten powerhouse.

The Good

Rodney Smith. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Rodney Smith was the workhorse on offense for the Gophers. Coming into this season, the spotlight at the running back position was firmly on Shannon Brooks, but Smith has made a compelling case for more of your attention. Against Rutgers, Smith rushed for 111 yards on 22 carries and one touchdown, and provided a huge spark on special teams when he returned a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown near the end of the third quarter. The knock against Smith last season was that he lacked Brooks’ toughness and ability to play through contact. That is definitely not the case anymore, especially after Smith’s pivotal nine-yard run on 3rd and 1 during the Gophers’ game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, where he turned away five Rutgers defenders to get the first down and more. With 701 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on the year, Smith needs just 300 yards over the next five games to become the Gophers’ first thousand-yard rusher since David Cobb in 2014.

The Bad

Mitch Leidner. Cleared to play earlier this week after suffering a concussion against Iowa two weeks ago, Leidner was the surprise starter against Rutgers, and all appeared well as he led three touchdown drives in the first quarter. After the first three drives, Leidner was 6-for-6 with 102 passing yards, in addition to the rushing touchdown that capped their 21-3 lead over the Scarlet Knights. Unfortunately, the game is four quarters, not one. And Leidner was 5-for-12 with 52 passing yards through the final three quarters. The near backbreaker was a pick six in the third quarter after two Gopher receivers ran into each other, allowing Leidner’s ill-advised pass to drop into the open arms of Rutgers cornerback Damon Hayes. I’m going to assume that Leidner was 100 percent — I would hope he wouldn’t be on the field otherwise — but he made a lot of bad reads and puzzling decisions on Saturday after that first quarter.

Restraining orders. Six Gopher football players — sophomore cornerback KiAnte Hardin, redshirt freshman cornerback Ray Buford, redshirt freshman safety Dior Johnson, freshman cornerback Kiondre Thomas, freshman defensive end Tamarion Johnson, and redshirt sophomore running back Carlton Djam — were served restraining orders ahead of Saturday’s game and barred from TCF Bank Stadium because the person who filed the restraining orders is involved in some aspect of gameday operations for football games. The players’ attorney has scheduled a hearing for Tuesday in a bid to overturn the restraining orders, and the Gophers will need to hope and pray that the ruling ends up in their favor because the impact of losing Hardin and Buford — again — was painfully obvious on Saturday. The legal problems involving these particular players feels like a nightmare that won’t end. I’m not going to speculate or make assumptions about the details of their situation, but I hope it reaches some type of resolution sooner rather than later.

Targeting. The Gophers were called for their fourth targeting penalty of the season when linebacker Jack Lynn was ejected in the third quarter for a hit on wide receiver Jawuan Harris. It was, objectively, a horrendous call. Lynn led with his shoulder and there was incidental helmet-to-helmet contact. I don’t know how you can punish a player for that. Refs’ failure to properly enforce the targeting rule continues to plague college football. Lynn will now have to miss the first half against Illinois next week.

Brandon Lingen. This continues to feel like a lost season for the junior tight end. He made his season debut in Week 2 against Indiana State after missing the season opener while recovering from shoulder surgery, but a broken clavicle knocked him out of the next three games after that. He was able to return against Maryland, but left the Rutgers game with a foot injury that left him on crutches and in a walking boot.

Special teams. Similar to Conor Rhoda against Maryland last week, our special teams against Rutgers made the case for a “Meh” category. Kicker Emmit Carpenter inexplicably missed a 34-yard field goal in the second quarter, before hitting two in the second half, including the game-winning 28-yard field goal. Punter Ryan Santoso set up Rutgers’ first touchdown of the game with a horrific 30-yard punt out of bounds in the second quarter, but then pinned the Scarlet Knights at their own 4-yard line with a 44-yard punt before halftime. The inconsistency continues to boggle the mind.

The Ugly

The entire Gopher defense. Prior to Saturday, Rutgers was averaging 3.5 points per game on offense against their four previous Big Ten opponents. The Scarlet Knights were shut out by Ohio State and Michigan and could only muster a single touchdown against both Iowa and Illinois. Against Minnesota, Rutgers scored 32 points, which exceeds the Scarlet Knights’ point total from their five previous losses COMBINED. Through seven games, Rutgers was 124th in the country in passing offense (126.9 yards per game) and 70th in rushing offense (171.6 yards per game). Against Minnesota, the Scarlet Knights amassed 222 passing yards and 150 rushing yards. Rutgers’ running backs Justin Goodwin and Josh Hicks — starter Robert Martin was injured and did not play — both averaged more than five yards per carry. And the Scarlet Knights’ handed the reins on offense to first-time starting quarterback Giovanni Rescigno, who torched the Gophers’ secondary for three touchdowns. The Gophers recorded four sacks, nabbed two interceptions, and forced a fumble, but struggled to get off the field against the worst offense in the Big Ten.

4th and short. On 4th and 1 late in the third quarter, Leidner was tackled for no gain. On 4th and 2 early in the fourth quarter, a false start penalty forced the Gophers to punt. On 3rd and 1 and 4th and 1 late in the fourth quarter, Brooks carried the ball twice, once for no gain and another for negative yards. You can’t call yourself a Big Ten team if you’re not capable of picking up a single yard when you need it most. That’s both on the playcalling and the offensive line. Whatever happened to a simple quarterback sneak? And I’ve never understood the logic behind lining up in the pistol on short yardage plays. Just so frustrating to see this offense come up empty in these situations. The lack of execution is simply inexcusable.

Drew Wolitarsky returning punts. For the second time this season, Wolitarsky muffed a punt deep in Gopher territory and allowed the other team to recover and then take the lead on the ensuing drive. There is an old saying that goes something like this: If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. If Wolitarsky can’t handle the pressure of fielding a punt, maybe he should stop fielding punts. Just a thought.

God, that game sucked. Did I miss anything?