College football is back! Better yet, the Minnesota Golden Gophers are back, in head coach P.J. Fleck’s second year at the helm. You could not have asked for a better start to the season than last night’s 48-10 victory over the New Mexico State Aggies, who dropped to 0-2 on the year after dropping their opener against Wyoming less than a week ago.
As per usual, let’s break it all down.
Seth Green. In the spring, Green transitioned from quarterback to tight end. In the fall, he became a wide receiver. But against New Mexico State, Green was none of the above. Instead, the versatile redshirt sophomore lined up in the wildcat formation and ended up scoring back-to-back rushing touchdowns in the second quarter to help Minnesota build a 21-10 lead. Fleck and co. certainly seem excited about his skillset and will get creative in finding ways to utilize it. His development this season should be fun to watch.
Seth Green, out of the Wildcat, is going to be fun. pic.twitter.com/g8V8GnYAp3— Minnesota on BTN (@MinnesotaOnBTN) August 31, 2018
Antoine Winfield, Jr. First of all, welcome back, Antoine! We haven’t seen Winfield in action since the Maryland game of last year, when he suffered the hamstring injury that would cost him the rest of his season. His return to the field last night included handling punt return duties, which led to arguably the play of night as Winfield blew the game open with a 76-yard punt return for a touchdown to give the Gophers a commanding 28-10 lead.
The secondary. We knew that this matchup was going to represent a formidable challenge for the Gophers’ young and thin secondary, but for the most part they were up to the task. New Mexico State’s already pass-heavy offense effectively abandoned the running game in the second quarter and ended up attempting 58 passes, finishing with 233 passing yards when all was said and done. In that context, it was a strong performance. It was by no means perfect, and Minnesota certainly benefited from quite a few dropped passes, but true freshman Terell Smith (eight tackles and three pass break-ups) and redshirt sophomore Kiondre Thomas (seven tackles and two pass break-ups) were both particularly impressive.
Young playmakers on offense. Rodney Smith and Tyler Johnson were the known commodities on offense coming into this season, and neither of them disappointed in the opener. Smith racked up 153 rushing yards on 24 attempts and one reception for 21 yards, while Johnson hauled in five receptions for 100 receiving yards and two touchdowns. But for once, the pair don’t seem so lonesome. Redshirt freshman running back Mohamed Ibrahim reached the century mark in rushing yards after a 74-yard burst in the fourth quarter, and true freshman Bryce Williams scored the first touchdown of his college career. True freshman Rashod Bateman and redshirt freshman Chris Autman-Bell also made strong debuts at wide receiver, combining to contribute nine receptions for a total of 95 receiving yards.
Blake Cashman. Stepping into a starting linebacker, the senior made the most of it, leading the team with eight tackles, including four tackles for loss and one sack. Playing alongside standout sophomores Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin, it takes a lot to stand out, but Cashman certainly made his presence known against the Aggies.
Zack Annexstad. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to describe his performance as “elite,” but for the purposes of this post, this category is where he belongs. The true freshman finished 16-of-33 for 220 passing yards and two touchdowns, which is about as much as you can expect from a quarterback seeing his first game action at the collegiate level. Annexstad certainly had his fair share of errant passes and freshman mistakes — a botched snap in the first quarter that ultimately set up a New Mexico State touchdown being one of them. But he was instrumental in the offense taking control of the game in the second quarter, during which he was 6-of-7 for 132 passing yards and one touchdown. Not a bad first start.
Calvin Swenson. The walk-on redshirt sophomore defensive back, who recorded a single tackle against New Mexico State, was awarded a scholarship — and the game ball — in the locker room after the game last night. Take a look:
Penalties. Believe it or not, the Gophers were the least penalized team in college football last season, drawing a total of 39 flags on the year. That was not the case last night. Minnesota drew nine penalties in the season opener, which is to be expected with a young and inexperienced squad. But they’ll need to be more disciplined moving forward, and I have no doubt it be a point of emphasis for Fleck and co.
The offensive line. Don’t be deceived by a box score that shows a cumulative total of 295 rushing yards and no sacks allowed. There is work to be done in run blocking and protecting the quarterback. It’s the first game of the season, so I’ll allow time for the offensive line to gel, but Zack Annexstad was getting hit far too often for a team with one scholarship quarterback on the roster (even though he isn’t the starter). Then there was the all too familiar sight of Rodney Smith running for his life behind the line of scrimmage. We all know what he can do in the open field. The offensive line needs to be more consistent about creating those opportunities for him.
The pass rush. The Gophers collected four sacks on the night, but only one came from a defensive lineman, and that was rush end Carter Coughlin. It seemed that the Minnesota defensive front couldn’t apply much pressure without dialing up a blitz. I was hoping to see more from the edge rushers, especially redshirt freshman Esezi Otomewo, but he didn’t even record a tackle. To succeed in the Big Ten, the Gophers simply have to be able to generate a pass rush without having to send extra bodies.
New Mexico State. Just a reminder to keep your expectations in check moving forward. The Aggies are not a good football team, that much is clear. But there is something to be said about taking care of business against an inferior opponent, which is not something the Gophers have always been able to accomplish in years past. So this squad deserves credit for imposing their will upon New Mexico State in the second quarter and never letting go. But next week’s looming matchup with Fresno State will tell us a lot more about this team.
I got nothing. College football has returned and the Gophers are 1-0. What more could you ask for? Now you can kick back and enjoy the first college football Saturday of the season.