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Gophers overcome Rodney Smith injury and hang on to beat Fresno State 21-14

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A critical injury early but the team made the necessary plays to beat a good Fresno State team 21-14

NCAA Football: Fresno State at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Gophers held on to beat a talented Fresno State team 21-14. After the Fresno State offense woke late in the third quarter, leads changed hands a couple times before the Gopher defense made an end zone interception to seal the win and move to 2-0 on the season.

Things looked bleak early for the Gophers when their best offensive player was lost for the game to a knee injury. Rodney Smith took a screen pass for 11-yards on the third play of the game and had to be helped off the field without putting any weight on the injured leg. It was encouraging to see him along the sidelines in the first half with his teammates, but he did not return.

With Smith out of the game and the offensive line struggling, it was very difficult for the offense to get the rushing game going. When the offense was moving the ball, it was on the arm of Zack Annexstad. Their second drive of the game started on their own 20 and it was Annexstad going 5/5 for 46 yards plus Seth Green rushing 6 times out of the wildcat as the Gophers moved down the field to take an early 7-0 lead.

The rest of the half was 2 punts and an interception for Fresno, 2 punts and a 53-yard field goal for Minnesota. A largely uneventful first half full of booth replays, a couple injury timeouts and a Gopher 10-0 lead into the break. Bryce Williams, the new Gopher running back struggled to find running room and took a 2.8 yard per carry average into the half.

The second half was much of the same until a Tyler Johnson fumble at the Gopher 17-yard line. This play changed the momentum of the game entirely. It took Fresno State four plays to go the 17 yards and get on the board.

The offense took the ball 48 yards before stalling and Emmit Carpenter nailed a 50-yard field goal putting the Gophers up 13-7.

Then the Fresno offense, which had struggled to move the ball for much of the game, exploded. A 22-yard rush by Jordan Mims was the game’s longest of the game, which then set up a 45-yard touchdown pass to KeeSean Johnson giving Fresno State their first lead of the game and touchdowns on back-to-back drives.

All momentum appeared to be on the Bulldog’s sideline, until Zack Annexstad made the play of his young career.

With Minnesota down a point, with under 7 minutes to go, the offense sat on their own 46 facing a 3rd and 9 conversion. The offensive line was immediately blown up as Annexstad was trying to roll out to his right and 2 defenders in his face. He spun back to his left, rolled out trying to avoid the sack before finding Tyler Johnson 13 yards downfield. Johnson went up for the ball, came down on one foot, staying in bounds and converting a critical third down.

Bryce Williams then started getting loose with runs of 9, 3, 11 and 2 before the offense was turned back over to Seth Green who capped it off with a touchdown. Green then threw to Ko Kieft for the 2-point conversion and a 21-14 lead.

Fresno got the ball back with 3:28, having scored on consecutive drives. The Bulldogs went down the field, converting a key 4th down and setting up 1st and goal from the 4 yard line. First down, Antoine Winfield bites on a play-fake before recovering to make a spectacular interception in the end zone. Turning around in mid-air, twisting to get the ball and awkwardly landing one foot inbounds to seal the Gopher win.

A kneel down was all that remained. But this game became very exciting with three of the games four touchdowns coming in the last 17 minutes of the game.

The Gopher defense, through the first 10 drives of the game allowed 148 total yards to Fresno, with the last drive being the short field touchdown. This sparked the Fresno offense which went for 75 and 71 yards on their next two. Winfield and Smith both with key interceptions, Blake Cashman led the team with 10 tackles and the defense as a whole allowing only 87 yards rushing.

Offensively, Annexstad finished the game 16/26 passing with 175 yards. But it was a couple of critical throws at key times that began to show this kid’s moxey. He connected with Tyler Johnson 6 times and Rashod Bateman 5 times as this passing game begins to take shape.

Up next for the Gophers is Miami (Ohio), next Saturday at 2:30. But more importantly this week will be the status of senior running back, Rodney Smith.