The Minnesota Golden Gophers improved to 2-0 on the season with a dramatic 21-14 victory over the Fresno State Bulldogs last night at TCF Bank Stadium. As per usual, there was a lot to like — even a couple moments to love — but it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There is plenty of work to be done, but for now, the Gophers are feeling good, and rightfully so.
Let’s get to it.
Antoine Winfield, Jr. Just watch the clip (again).
That fourth quarter third down conversion. It was an up-and-down game for both quarterback Zack Annexstad and wide receiver Tyler Johnson, but the two connected when it mattered most. Trailing 14-13, with six minutes left in the game, Annexstad scrambled away from pressure on 3rd and 9 to find Johnson near the sideline, heaving a pass that only the junior wide receiver could catch. It was an incredible throw and an even more ridiculous catch. Without that play, who knows how that decisive touchdown drive would have ended.
Emmit Carpenter. The senior kicker came up big last night, nailing two 50+ yard field goals. His 53-yard field goal in the second quarter tied his previous career long.
Rashod Bateman. It’s only a matter of time before the true freshman wide receiver finds paydirt, but for now he’ll have to settle for coming up with first downs. All five of his receptions were for a fresh set of downs last night, and he led the team with 78 receiving yards. Opposing defenses can no longer focus all their attention on Tyler Johnson, and the Gopher offense is better for it.
Seth Green. Say what you want about the playcalling — we’ll get to that later — but the converted quarterback is racking up touchdowns in his new wildcat role, no matter how predictable that role may be. After finding the end zone twice in the opener, the redshirt sophomore was responsible for both of the Gophers’ touchdowns against Fresno State. Green even got to throw the ball, connecting with tight end Ko Kieft on a two-point conversion.
Terell Smith. What a game for the true freshman starting cornerback. The Bulldogs’ game plan on offense seemed predicated on attacking Smith, and he was more than up to the challenge. Smith led all other Gopher defensive backs with eight tackles, one pass break-up, and one interception. He was key in limiting the production of Fresno State quarterback Marcus McMaryion and wide receiver KeeSean Johnson. Minus the 45-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, when Johnson was able to beat cornerback Coney Durr on a corner route, McMaryion was held to 160 passing yards and Johnson to a pedestrian 44 receiving yards.
Blake Cashman. For the second consecutive game, the senior linebacker was the team’s leading tackler. Against Fresno State, Cashman totaled ten tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. In the first quarter, the Bulldogs faced 3rd and 1 at the Minnesota 48 and could have converted if not for Cashman, who burst through the line to drop running back Jordan Mims for a loss of two yards. It’s shaping up to be a big senior season for Cashman, but unfortunately he did limp off the field at one point in the fourth quarter. Hopefully it was nothing serious.
The Gophers’ defense, in general. Things started to come apart in the fourth quarter, when a Tyler Johnson fumble set up the Bulldogs’ first touchdown of the game and lit a fire under their previously stagnant offense, but I hope that doesn’t overshadow the Gophers’ dominance on defense for the first three quarters. Facing an offense that returned their leading passer, leading rusher, and leading receiver from a season ago and put up 79 points in their season opener — albeit, against Idaho — Minnesota’s defense was undaunted. Before that first touchdown drive late in the third quarter, the Gophers had forced seven punts and one interception, and smothered the Fresno State offense to the tune of 131 total offensive yards.
The offensive playcalling. Early on, the Gopher offense seemed to be finding a rhythm with the quick passing game. Then that disappeared, presumably because Fresno State made adjustments on defense, and Minnesota struggled from there. I mean, 11 rushing attempts for Seth Green? Is that necessary? I guess the results speak for themselves, but the lack of creativity leaves something to be desired. At one point, I did have to remind myself that the Gophers weren’t playing Kent State, because the second half, especially, seemed to closely resemble #KentStateProtocol. On their first four possessions after halftime, the Gophers amassed a combined 32 yards, punted three times, and fumbled once. Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca didn’t seem to have much confidence in his offense.
The offensive line. I know there are some that will disagree, but I was not impressed with the offensive line last night. They did Bryce Williams no favors as he filled in for Rodney Smith, struggling to open up holes for the true freshman running back. He finished with a respectable 85 yards on 25 attempts, but had to fight tooth and nail for every yard. Annexstad was also under pressure most of the night. He wasn’t getting a lot of time to throw the ball and it seemed to prevent him from getting comfortable in the pocket, as I noticed he started to anticipate pressure that wasn’t quite there. The right side of the offensive line, in particular, struggled, with redshirt freshman guard Blaise Andries and redshirt sophomore tackle Sam Schlueter.
The punting. At some point this season, the Gophers’ lackluster punting, courtesy of first-year starter and redshirt junior Jacob Herbers, is going to cost them. I’m hopeful he’ll improve, but when the offense struggles to move the ball like they did last night, being able to flip the field can be the difference in the game. Herbers has not been able to do that thus far, especially when Minnesota is pinned back in their own territory.
Rodney Smith. My heart breaks for the Gophers’ senior running back. On the third play of the game, Smith looked to be in considerable pain after a big gain and left the game with a lower leg injury. He did not return, and spent the second half on the sideline in street clothes. Head coach P.J. Fleck said in his postgame presser that Smith would undergo tests to determine the severity of the injury, but offered no other specifics. If he is out for an extended period, if not the entire season, it will be a tough break for a tough kid.