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Minnesota Football vs Buffalo: The Elite, The Bad, and The Ugly

The Gophers opened the P.J. Fleck era with an uninspiring win over Buffalo that left a lot to be desired on offense.

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

P.J. Fleck earned his first victory as head football coach at Minnesota as the Golden Gophers improved to 1-0 with a season-opening 17-7 win over the Buffalo Bulls.

I’ll be honest: This was about as uninspiring as season-opening victories get. Granted, there were a lot of warning signs that should have prepared us for this:

  • The first game of the season is often the worst in terms of execution as players shake off the rust from a long layoff.
  • It was the first game under a new coaching staff.
  • The Gophers had not one but two starting quarterbacks, and both of them had limited game experience.

But with that said, Buffalo was very bad last season. It remains to be seen who good they’ll be this season, but with what we knew about this team leading up to the opener, the Gophers should have walked right through them. That didn’t happen.

Let’s break it down.

The Elite

The Gopher defense. Yes, the secondary looked atrocious on the Bulls’ lone scoring drive of the game, but the Minnesota D was able to overcome some early struggles to put together an all-around stellar performance. The Gophers forced five three-and-outs and held the Bulls scoreless for three quarters, even blocking a field goal in the second quarter. In the second half, all Buffalo could muster was 64 yards of offense. The Bulls were within one score pretty much the entire game but never really threatened. The defense was even able to account for Buffalo wide receiver Anthony Johnson, who had 8 receptions, 115 receiving yards, and 1 touchdown in the first half. In the second half: 3 receptions and 25 receiving yards. It was a solid but sloppy performance from a defense with far greater tests ahead.

Special shoutout to junior safety Jacob Huff for recording his first career interception.

Tyler Johnson. The sophomore wide receiver matched his receiving total from all of last season with 6 receptions for 141 yards, including a 61-yard burst to the end zone to open up the game’s scoring. The Bulls were able to smother him in the second half — Johnson did not record a single reception after halftime — but if Eric Carter, Demetrius Douglas, or another Gopher receiver can step up and draw the defense’s attention, he is going to be difficult to stop in this offense.

The Gophers won. As Fleck said in his postgame press conference, never take a win for granted. Fleck is the first Gopher head football coach since 1986 to win his first game at the helm. The Gophers are 1-0 and that matters, but if they can’t improve on tonight’s performance, there won’t be many wins to appreciate this season.

The Bad

Quarterbacks Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft. Maybe I’m being too harsh, but I wasn’t impressed with either Gopher quarterback, if I’m being honest. Rhoda had the better passing numbers and a touchdown through the air, but was also responsible for that terrible interception in the end zone before halftime. Croft appears better suited to the run-pass option offense and had the Bulls’ defense on its heels as he led a 10-play, 64-yard scoring drive, but his inexperience showed at times. I wasn’t thrilled when Fleck announced the co-starters for this game, and their performances did nothing to ease my concerns about the uncertainty at quarterback.

Their final lines:

Rhoda, through seven drives:
12-for-21, 176 passing yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception

Croft, through five drives:
7-for-11, 63 passing yards, 0 touchdowns, 0 interceptions
6 rushing attempts, 32 rushing yards

Emmit Carpenter. The reigning Big Ten Kicker of the Year didn’t look the part last night, missing field goals of 52 and 36 yards before nailing a 43-yarder in the final minutes of the game. Considering he missed just two field goals all of last season, it was a strange and somewhat disconcerting start to the season for the junior kicker.

The defensive line. I know I lauded the defense with praise earlier, but I felt the defensive line’s performance was worthy of some ire. It was until defensive coordinator Robb Smith started dialing up the blitzes that the Gopher defense was finally able to pressure Buffalo quarterback Tyree Jackson. The defense’s inability to generate much of a pass rush without blitzing a linebacker is a concern moving forward for me.

The Ugly

The offensive line. Consider for a moment that Buffalo allowed a school-record 253 rushing yards on defense last season. That unit lost five defensive linemen this offseason, including two starters. And when you have two running backs as talented as Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, your offense should be able to muster more than 169 rushing yards against the Bulls’ defensive line. But the Gophers’ offensive line failed to consistently open running lanes for either running back. To their credit, the line did not allow a sack, but Rhoda certainly felt the pressure and Croft had to use his legs to escape a collapsing pocket on more than one occasion. Offensive line coach Ed Warinner has his work cut out for him, because this certainly won’t be the best defensive front the Gophers’ see all season.

A win is a win is a win, but there is much work to be done.