No Rodney Smith, no problem for the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
The remaining playmakers picked up the slack on a hot and humid afternoon at TCF Bank Stadium, leading Minnesota to a 26-3 victory over Miami (Ohio).
Last week senior running back Smith was lost for the season to a knee injury, leaving freshman backs Bryce Williams or Mohamed Ibrahim to take over the running game. Against Miami, it was Williams who shouldered the load.
Williams rushed 33 times for 141 yards as the primary back. Although he did fumble in the red zone on the team’s last drive of the game, Gophers head coach PJ Fleck praised Williams on how filled in as the lead back.
“I thought Bryce played better than he did last week,” Fleck said. “I thought he grew a lot. I thought he ran hard. He was tough. He’s been here three and a half months and when you’re here three and half months as a running back, and you’re only 18, and you’re not developed, it’s hard to break all those tackles because you haven’t even been in the strength program an entire year.”
Fleck added a player like Williams should be a redshirt but the team’s situation makes it such that he has to play. In other words, the team needs him to play and, more importantly, perform.
“He ran extremely hard and I’m proud of him,” senior center Jared Weyler said of Williams. “He ran the ball hard 33 times, he didn’t just run 33 times. So it’s impressive and I look forward to seeing to continue to grow.”
Despite the maximum effort from Williams, it was Gophers receiver Tyler Johnson who led the team offensively. Johnson caught three passes for 38 yards and the team’s first touchdown in the team’s opening drive.
After the first Minnesota drive, Johnson had two dropped passes which very much should have been caught. Zack Annexstad stayed away from Johnson for a while but looked his way again in the second quarter, catching four passes for 59 yards and his second of three touchdowns.
“They hurt,” Johnson said of his early drops. “But I just know the way this program is, you drop something and just move one. Keep growing.”
Johnson, looking much more confident on his routes, caught his third touchdown of the day in the latter half of the third quarter.
The nice individual performances from Williams and Johnson gave Minnesota a comfortable lead. Tanner Morgan came in at quarterback in relief of Annexstad and looked out of sorts. He threw an interception and fumbled a snap which led to a 23-yard loss. Shortly thereafter, Williams fumbled. Altogether the mistakes were an eyesore on the team’s third win of the season. The late game mistakes didn’t cost the Gophers either but the team did leave “meat on the bones.”
“We’ve got to practice better,” Fleck said while reflecting on the practices leading up the game. “I put a ton of expectations on them.”
Overall, the feeling in the locker room, as described by Fleck, was one of slight disappointment for not winning by a bigger margin. Fleck simply told the team winning is hard.
“There are a lot of (teams) in our league today that did not win,” Fleck said. “Winning is hard. And when you know a team comes in after winning by 23 points, and they have a little disappointment in them, you know got a special group of people. We won but let’s be excited for 24 hours then tomorrow we’ll put our big boy pants back on, put our leather skin vest on and we’re going to get coached.”
Disruptive Pass Rush
With the Gophers leading early, the RedHawks ditched running the ball the traditional way. Instead, Miami tried running option plays and deeper passes. This allowed edge rushers Carter Coughlin and Blake Cashman to do what they do best; quieting the passing game.
“I think Rob Smith is one of the best defensive coordinators in the country,” Fleck said. “You’re always as good as the people you surround yourself with. You can tell they’re all playing for each other.”
It may not show in the stat sheet after the game, but the two forced both Gus Ragland and Alex Malzone to throw early.
Coughlin and Cashman each were credited with three tackles while Coughlin recorded the only two sacks for the Gophers defense. Coughlin’s two sacks tied a career-high for sacks in a game.
Herbers Back to Punt
In a game with a wide margin of victory, one wouldn’t normally look to at a punter as being an impact player. Yet it’s hard to overlook what Gophers punter Jacob Herbers did.
He punted six times, downing four punts inside the 20. Of those four, three were inside the 10-yard line.
Through the offensive missteps and the stout defensive play, Fleck said special teams is a huge part of any game regardless of opponent and added that Herbers was the player of the game. Antonio Shenault said
“Herbers did a great job today,” Shenault said. “He gives the defense a lot of confidence. We focus on keeping the offense there so we give our offense a chance. So it gives us all the confidence in the world.”
One of Herbers’ punts was downed at the 2-yard line. The RedHawks offense went nowhere. On third-and-10, Miami’s Alonzo Smith tripped in the end zone and Gophers linebacker Thomas Barber was there to touch him while Smith lay on the ground for the safety.
“Credit to our dream team,” Barber said. “That’s our punt team, that’s what we call them. That was all the special teams there.”
- The kickoff temperature was 91 degrees; the second highest temperature in TCF Bank Stadium history. The warmest game-time temperature was 92 degrees on Aug. 29, 2013, when the Gophers faced UNLV.
- Johnson’s big day made him the 25th player in team history with 1,000 or more receiving yards.
- Annexstad has yet to throw an interception through three games. He is 44-for-79 for 537 yards and four touchdowns this season.
- With the win, Fleck has started his first two seasons as Gophers head coach with a 3-0 record. The last Minnesota head coach to start his first two seasons 3-0 was Alexander Jerrems in 1896 (beat South High, Minneapolis Central and Carleton) and 1897 (beat South High, Macalester and Carleton). Minnesota started 7-0 in 1896 and 4-0 in 1897.
- The Gophers begin Big Ten play Saturday on the road against Maryland with kickoff scheduled for 11 a.m.