The Minnesota Golden Gophers started off sloppy in the rain against the Michigan State Spartans, waiting out a 37-minute rain delay before kickoff.
The rain did little to slow down the Spartans in their 30-27 win, with running back LJ Scott having a season-high 194 yards and two scores on 25 carries. While a 21-point fourth quarter got the Gophers back into the game, they ultimately had too much ground to make up.
Now Minnesota is left, yet again, with the question of who should lead this team at quarterback after falling to 3-3. The game featured Demry Croft and Conor Rhoda, both of whom playing amidst a heated debate of who should stick.
The Gophers offense struggled immediately in the first quarter, going three and out to start the game. When their special teams recovered a bobbled punt on the ensuing Spartans drive to put the Gophers on the 3-yard line, the offense sputtered again. At this point, they had negative yards and had to settle for a field goal.
The next Minnesota drive was a fumble in their own territory after a poor handoff between quarterback Conor Rhoda and running back Shannon Brooks put the Spartans on Minnesota’s 7-yard line.
Two drives later, Minnesota again had the ball in Michigan State territory — thanks to an interception from safety Duke McGhee — but was forced to kick a field goal after three plays yielded 5 yards.
At the 6:38 mark of the second quarter, Rhoda was pulled in favor of backup Croft. Rhoda was pulled for a reason, finishing with 12 attempts for five completions and 53 yards along with minus-10 yards rushing.
After six games, the Gophers found themselves back in the same spot as when they were gearing up for Week 1. They really do not have an answer at quarterback.
So far, both quarterbacks have failed to rise to the challenge. Rhoda has looked lost and struggled to put drives together in the last six quarters he has played. Ultimately, it’s the mental mistakes Rhoda has made are what constantly hurt his production in the offense.
“First-and-goal on the 4, we drop the snap, and now the whole playbook changes,” said head coach P.J. Fleck on Rhoda’s first-half mental errors. “We run a zoom motion and we turn and hand that off. We are not supposed to hand that off and there is a little bit of a brain disconnect. Second-and-5, we have a low snap and take a knee, now it’s 3rd-and-12.”
Rhoda made these mental errors against Maryland with a pick in the red zone and on the final drive that could have led to a game-winning score. Against Purdue, a pick on the final Minnesota drive killed the possibility of trying the game. Mental mistakes against the Spartans put the Gophers down 10-3 early to give the home team a tough hole to fight from the jump. Rhoda’s constant problem getting out of his own way needed to be addressed.
The real problem is that the quarterbacks are hard to distinguish, with both struggling to read the coverage and finding the same problems when under pressure. The allure of Rhoda was his big arm, but Fleck hasn’t reaped the benefits of that yet. Croft has great legs to keep a defense honest, but played too inconsistently passing the ball to keep him in against Oregon State.
“Our staff met yesterday and talked about possibly working in Demry anyway and about starting to get him in a little more as we continue to go forward,” said Fleck on Croft’s entrance into the game. “This was not a knee-jerk reaction.”
Knee-jerk or not, Croft did show a spark at the end of the game, leading the offense down the field twice in the final 10:15 for touchdowns.
Croft’s Strong Showing Changes The Race
Now the race is more muddled after Croft’s show in the second half, finishing with 163 yards, three scores, and 31 yards on the ground. While he looked good several spots late, the Spartans were protecting a two-score lead.
“What I saw out there, in the last 10 minutes, was a team I couldn’t wait to see,” said Fleck on the strong finish. “That was different then even our first three games, that last 10 minutes…that was different.”
It’s hard to come back from where he’s been, though. In addition to losing the job early in the season, Croft was suspended for off-field activities after the Oregon State win in Week 2. He also showed bad habits from early in the season, throwing a bad pick three passing attempts.
The run Croft had the Gophers offense on to finish out the game was a glimpse of what many had hoped for one of these quarterbacks to prove they had in week one. Now it is up to Fleck in the week leading up to Illinois to see if it was for real.