Well, college football is back. For better and for worse, as we were reminded last night when the Minnesota Golden Gophers prevailed in one of those classic wins that felt more like a loss. It’s safe to say that the Gophers’ ugly 28-21 season-opening victory over the South Dakota State Jackrabbits left much to be desired, effectively taking the wind out of the sails of many Gopher fans who dared to dream of contending in the Big Ten West. That dream is not dashed, but head coach P.J. Fleck and co. certainly have their work cut out for them.
Rashod Bateman. The Gophers’ sophomore wide receiver hauled in five receptions for 132 yards — albeit, all in the first half — but I’ll stop writing now so that you can watch a replay of his one-handed touchdown catch again:
The Gophers are 1-0. And I’ll take 1-0 over the alternative every time. I’m not going to say that the Gophers’ performance isn’t cause for concern — it most certainly is — but in the end the scoreboard is what matters and on Thursday night it favored Minnesota.
South Dakota State. It should be clear now, if it wasn’t before, that the Jackrabbits are no pushovers. South Dakota State is a Top 5 FCS program that expects to challenge North Dakota State for a national title. Should the Gophers have needed a desperate fourth quarter comeback to scratch and claw their way to victory? Probably not. But respect to the Jackrabbits. They outplayed and outcoached the Gophers for long stretches of the game.
Tanner Morgan. The interception was bad. It was not a throw that should have been made, but even worse, he stared down Bateman, allowing Jackrabbits safety Joshua Manchigiah to make an easy play on the ball. Aside from that, Morgan was hit or miss, quite literally. The Gophers’ redshirt freshman quarterback made good throws and bad decisions — too often into double coverage — but he also got little help from his pass protection, particularly in the second half. I have confidence he’ll get better, but this was not the most encouraging start.
Michael Lantz. Making his collegiate debut, the true freshman kicker did not attempt a field goal for Minnesota, but was 2-for-3 on extra point attempts. His lone miss came on a second attempt that was pushed back due to a 15-yard penalty on the first attempt.
The entire third quarter — with one exception. Where do I begin? I’ll start with the aforementioned exception: The interception that South Dakota State quarterback J’Bore Gibbs gift-wrapped and deposited into the open arms of Chris Williamson, who promptly returned it 43 yards to the end zone. That ill-advised throw was the calm before the storm.
The Jackrabbits would respond to that pick six with a 10-play, 92-yard touchdown drive to reduce the deficit back to six points. Needing a breather, the Gopher defense didn’t get one as the offense proceeded to go three-and-out, advancing (retreating?) -6 yards on that drive. Sure enough, the South Dakota State offense was able to capitalize, requiring all of three plays to find their way into the red zone before taking the lead after converting on fourth and short. Minnesota responded with three consecutive pass attempts and then three consecutive rush attempts, scraping out 26 yards of offense before giving way to the punt team.
South Dakota State’s third quarter offense: 24 plays, 190 yards, two touchdowns
Minnesota’s third quarter offense: 9 plays, 20 yards
The Gopher defense didn’t have a sack or even a tackle for loss until the Jackrabbits’ final possession of the game. Think about that.
The offensive line. Arguably the biggest disappointment of the entire game, the Minnesota Movers looked woefully unprepared and outmatched despite their considerable size advantage, kept off balance and out of sorts all night by the Jackrabbits’ simple twists and stunts. That’s an indictment of Fleck and offensive line coach Brian Callahan. Redshirt freshman left guard Curtis Dunlap, in particular, had a night to forget. The offensive line surrendered two sacks and were outgained on the ground by the Jackrabbits, who rushed for 174 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry compared to the Gophers’ 132 rushing yards and 3.1 yards per carry.
Linebackers not named Thomas Barber. Kamal Martin did not dress for the game -- an extension of the suspension he served in last year's Quick Lane Bowl -- and the Gophers' youth at linebacker was exposed. Sophomores Thomas Rush and Mariano Sori-Marin and redshirt freshman Braelen Oliver were thrown into the fire and were promptly torched. Oliver got lost on the play that saw running back Pierre Strong streak down the field for what would have been a long touchdown reception if not for a holding penalty. Sori-Marin bit on the play-action fake that led to the Jackrabbits’ go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter.
The Gophers' biggest names were non-factors. Tyler Johnson might as well have been a face on the side of a milk carton, dropping at least two passes and recording a pedestrian three receptions for all of 28 yards. Carter Coughlin was effectively neutralized, tallying a paltry three tackles on the night. Not a one of them was a tackle for loss. You could practically see the rust on Antoine Winfield Jr., who had one key third down pass break-up. But he whiffed on a sack that turned into a 14 yard rush for a first down and later got caught flat-footed on the touchdown pass to Strong that was called back due to a holding penalty.
Worst of all, it felt like the Gophers didn't deserve to win. The Jackrabbits could have gone into halftime up 14-13 after a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown if not for a holding penalty. South Dakota State had a third quarter touchdown erased by another holding penalty. The fourth quarter turnover that swung the game was an unforced error by the Jackrabbits, a mishandled exchange that ended up on the ground. In his postgame presser, Fleck said the Gophers "found a way to win," but it felt more like the Gophers were a buck-toothed kid swinging blindfolded at a piñata and whiffing before a merciful parent finally lost patience and held it in place for them.