The Minnesota Golden Gophers opened up the 2017 college football season at TCF Bank Stadium winning a slugfest over the Buffalo Bulls, 17-7.
“I loved seeing all those freshmen out there. I don’t know if it was required for orientation, but I was really proud of our student body,” said head coach P.J. Fleck of the Gophers atmosphere in his first game.
The jubilant atmosphere carried the offense early on for Minnesota, starting with the opening quarterback, Conor Rhoda. Rhoda looked far more comfortable than he did in the spring game, zipping balls across the field to receivers and connecting with Tyler Johnson on a 61-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter. He received the bulk of the workload in the opening half, throwing for 147 yards and a touchdown with one pick. Demry Croft also received playing time, leading a drive that ended with a Shannon Brooks touchdown. While Minnesota led at the half 14-7, it was not the dominant effort most might have expected.
The Gophers defense looked great, flying around the field making plays, led by Antoine Winfield Jr. and a sack, tackle for loss and defended pass with a blocked field goal to add to the impressive stat line. The secondary as a whole looked very good for the Gophers, making tackles in space and tight in coverage. Antoine Shenault had a team-high 10 tackles and played tight on the receivers in the outside corner spot.
Across from him, Kiondre Thomas played well outside of a single lapse that let Anthon Johnson go for a 50-yard catch. In the second half, Jacob Huff picked off Buffalo quarterback Tyree Jackson. The entire unit played with an edge that showed all game.
“He (Winfield) is a heck of a ball player, he loves football, and when you have a championship football team, across the board everybody loves football, that kid loves football and you can tell by the way he plays,” said Fleck on his defensive back’s opening game of the season. “You can tell when he plays the game, gosh is he special, and he’s also very humble but he’s all over the field and we are going to have to do more things with him.”
The defense as a unit played great football, only letting up 262 total yards and keeping the ground game pinned down to 51 yards. They also managed to get into the backfield with frequency, recording only one sack but getting six tackles for loss.
Tyler Johnson was also part of the good for Minnesota with 141 yards, he led the team in receiving and it was not even close, giving the Gophers a spark on the outside they have not had in years. He was fast down the sideline, quick out of his breaks and had the length to make him dangerous on the jump ball.
Both quarterbacks played and both looked good at times. But both also looked dreadful at times, and neither separated themselves as the No. 1 quarterback. Rhoda had the stats to his name, but threw the interception in the end zone that was not even close to a completion. He was lucky not to throw more, with some dangerous throws on a drive deep in Buffalo territory in the second half that could have been picked.
“I though they managed and handled the game,” said Fleck of the quarterbacks. “Almost better than I expected, their poise and the things they did I was impressed with. Those are two guys that have never started except a game and a quarter, and to come out with the lack of experience they had and to do what they did, I was proud of them.”
While Croft did not get the time or yards that Rhoda did, he still was able to make plays with his feet and led a pair of successful scoring drives for the Gophers. Croft ended with 63 passing yards and 32 yards on the ground while Rhoda had 176 yards through the air and a touchdown with his pick. Neither player a terribly clean or complete game.
Neither quarterback came out of the game as the established, No. 1 guy.
The youth and inexperience on this team were apparent, as there were plenty of mental lapses in this game. This included plenty of dropped balls and mishandled drives to show that they clearly left points on the board, despite how well the Bulls played.
Far more disappointing was the running game, with Brooks and Rodney Smith finishing with a combined 145 yards on the ground, but most of the work coming in the fourth quarter. Brooks was able to come on strong late and had an early touchdown, while Smith had some breaks on the edge, but overall the ground attack was underwhelming.
The offense has room to grow, but the defense looked outstanding and was constrictive against the run, which will keep this team in games no matter what. Fleck stressed repeatedly how young and inexperienced the team is, which means the expectations for the team may have to wait on the development of key players down the stretch of the season. The real concern was the lack of ability to run with two experienced backs, particularly up the middle. The offense needs to grow and quickly and the quarterback battle will bleed into game two, as they head out on the road to play Oregon State.