In the words of our own Ustreet, the Minnesota Golden Gophers “played about as dumb as possible and won on the road in a reasonably challenging non-conference matchup.” P.J. Fleck and co. escaped California with a 38-35 overtime victory over the Fresno State Bulldogs.
Couple the West Coast kickoff with a promising start, a series of mind-numbing mistakes, a blown lead, a fourth quarter comeback, and two overtimes, and you have a roller coaster of a college football game. I’m going to try to break it down as best I can.
Antoine Winfield Jr.’s game-ending interception. It was déjà vu all over again for the Gophers’ top defensive back. Last season against Fresno State, the Bulldogs had a wide receiver wide open in the end zone late in the game. The halfback lofted a pass in his direction for what was all but certain to be a game-tying touchdown with minutes left in regulation. That is, until Winfield intervened, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat with an interception in the end zone.
One year later, the Bulldogs had another wide receiver wide open in the end zone, awaiting what would have been a game-winning touchdown in overtime. If not for Winfield. Again.
In Antoine Winfield Jr. we trust. 〽️ pic.twitter.com/KVIjOlxiwL— Minnesota Football (@GopherFootball) September 8, 2019
Chris Autman-Bell’s game-tying touchdown. Winfield never gets the opportunity to seal the victory with that interception if not for Autman-Bell making an unbelievable touchdown catch in the corner of the end zone to tie the game in the fourth quarter. And the fact that it was 4th and 13 at the Fresno State 20 — with Minnesota trailing 28-21 and less than a minute left to play in regulation — makes it even more legendary. It was a perfect throw and a perfect catch at the moment in the game when the Gophers needed it most.
Rashod Bateman. Chris Autman-Bell had the highlight reel touchdown catch but the workhorse of the night was Bateman. The sophomore wide receiver led the team with seven receptions for 105 receiving yards, including a touchdown on the first drive of the game. It was Bateman’s second consecutive game with at least 100 receiving yards and one touchdown.
Michael Lantz. The true freshman kicker was asked to make the first field goal of his college career in overtime with the game on the line. His 37-yard field goal in double overtime delivered the game-winning points for the Gophers. You can’t ask for much more than that.
Kamal Martin. What a difference a senior linebacker makes. After missing the season opener last week due to suspension, Martin led the team in tackles against Fresno State with 13, nearly twice as many as any other Gopher defender in the game.
John Legend. The musical legend was in the house to see his nephew. He even addressed the team in the locker room after the game and shouted, “Row the boat!” Very cool.
Tanner Morgan. It was a rough night for the Gophers’ redshirt sophomore quarterback, to say the least. He fumbled three times, losing one of them. He had at least two throws that were nearly intercepted, with Rashod Bateman having to break up one of them. He struggled to get rid of the ball when the pocket collapsed. He didn’t always make the correct reads. But Morgan finished the night completing nearly 70 percent of his passes. He was 3-for-4 for 50 passing yards and one touchdown on third downs. He also dropped that dime to Autman-Bell in the corner of the end zone for the game-tying touchdown. It was the very definition of a mixed bag for Morgan.
The Minnesota Movers. I will say this: The Gophers’ offensive line was much improved from a week ago. They are far from a finished product, but this was a very promising performance. The Minnesota Movers paved the way for a decent rushing attack that was able to churn out yards on long scoring drives, with Mohamed Ibrahim averaging 5.2 yards per carry on 17 rush attempts for 88 yards and a touchdown. Consistency is where this unit struggles, and pass protection continues to be a work in progress. There was also eight tackles for loss allowed.
Turnovers. The ball is the program, and the program was not treated with care on Saturday night. Mohamed Ibrahim took points off the board in the first quarter, fumbling the ball at the Fresno State 26 when the Gophers could have extended their lead to 10-0 or even 14-0. Then came Tanner Morgan’s third quarter fumble that the Bulldogs converted into a touchdown five plays later, allowing them to take a 21-14 lead. The back-breaker seemed to come on a punt return in the fourth quarter with the game tied at 21-21. Justus Harris ran into Demetrius Douglas, who proceeded to muff the punt and hand Fresno State the ball at the Minnesota 38. Six plays later, the Bulldogs took a 28-21 lead. Turnovers nearly cost Minnesota the game.
Tai’yon Devers’ dumb penalty. On 3rd and 22 late in the second quarter, 10 Minnesota defenders forced a 4th and 11 by limiting the Bulldogs’ Ronnie Rivers to an 11-yard reception. Unfortunately the eleventh defender was Tai’yon Devers, who, despite being a country mile away from the action, decided to grab the face mask of the offensive lineman who had driven him completely out of the play. That penalty gift-wrapped 15 yards and a first down for Fresno State, who scored a touchdown two plays later. Had Devers, who is a senior, simply accepted defeat and walked back to the sideline, the Gophers would have gotten the ball back with about three minutes to work with and a 14-3 lead. Just a selfish and unacceptable play.
Penalties, especially on third downs. Devers’ miscue was far from the Gopher defense’s only self-inflicted wound on third down. Jordan Howden was called for defensive holding on an incomplete pass on 3rd and 8, extending a drive that would end in a field goal. In overtime, Braelen Oliver was flagged for roughing the passer on 3rd and Goal at the 10 on what would have been an incomplete pass, setting up fourth down. Instead, the Bulldogs were gifted a first down and scored. Nearly all of Fresno State’s touchdowns were helped by turnovers or penalties.
Halftime adjustments. Is the Minnesota coaching staff making any? If so, they are not working. The Gophers have been outscored 25-7 and outgained 310-105 in the third quarter so far this season. And the lone touchdown they’ve scored was an interception return for touchdown.
The Gophers’ pass protection. Four sacks allowed in the first half alone. Our Twitter mentions were quick to assign blame to Tanner Morgan for holding on to the ball too long, and while I won’t argue against that being a contributing factor, one of the first half sacks came courtesy of a three-man rush that saw Rodney Smith matched up against a defensive end and three offensive linemen looking for something to do. That’s not on Morgan.
Defending the pass. The Gopher defense managed to bottle up the Bulldogs’ rushing attack, limiting them to 57 yards on the ground by the end of the game. But at a certain point, Fresno State was having enough success through the air that they recognized the futility in trying to establish a ground game and started exclusively attacking the Minnesota secondary. With the Gophers’ defensive line struggling to generate much of a pass rush and defensive coordinator Joe Rossi failing to effectively disguise their coverage, Bulldogs quarterback Jorge Reyna picked apart their zone defense to the tune of 288 passing yards and three touchdowns.