Tough, gritty and, at times, ugly. But Minnesota got the job done against Oregon State on Thursday night.
Why should we be surprised? That’s how the Gophers have always gotten victories over the past three seasons.
Tracy Claeys tried to trick us at B1G Media Days in July. When he stepped up to the podium, he told us that this roster was the most talented he’s had since arriving at Minnesota. The long-time defensive coordinator told us how fortunate he was to have a leader like Mitch Leidner and how focused the team was entering the season.
He guaranteed us eight to 10 wins in 2016.
The funny thing? That may all still be true.
Minnesota’s 30-23 win over the Beavers was by no means an impressive victory. The offense struggled with botched snaps, offensive line breakdowns and an inconsistent passing attack. Leidner finised the night completing just 13 of his 26 passes for 130 yards.
Defensively, the team couldn’t tackle properly. Three players, linebackers Cody Poock and Jon Celestin and defensive lineman Tai’yon Devers, were ejected for targeting penalties. The Gophers struggled to stop Oregon State on third down, allowing the Beavers to convert on 10 of 19 third down attempts.
Somehow, Minnesota scrapped for a victory.
It’s become the program’s identity. Sure, a few things have changed. Claeys is now the permanent head coach and Jay Johnson is a new offensive coordinator with a more specific playbook. But those alterations are purely cosmetic. Deep down, Minnesota is still a blue-collar ball club.
You saw it on multiple occasions on Thursday.
Though Leidner struggled with his accuracy through the air, the senior picked up 76 yards and a pair of touchdowns with his legs. Running back Rodney Smith was a workhorse, bouncing off defenders for 125 yards and a pair of scores on 25 carries.
Freshman Tai’yon Devers recorded two sacks – both resulting in fumbles – that fueled two Gopher touchdowns in his first game at the college level.
Maybe the roster is better, but the mindset is the same. That could be the combination Minnesota needs to get over the hump.
There are a lot of areas to improve.
Leidner has to be more of a threat through the air, especially in a division loaded with defensive powerhouses. 130 passing yards and a 50 percent completion rate isn’t going to cut it in the B1G. Neither will eight penalties, three targeting ejections and fewer than 300 yards of total offense.
Then again, maybe it will.
Not many teams can make as many mistakes as the Gophers commit and win regularly. It’s a product of the Jerry Kill mindset and it has Minnesota sitting at 1-0.
I was anticipating a different look. I took Claeys’ words to mean that things would be different in 2016. I expected the offense to be more explosive and the defense to lock down opponents. That wasn’t the case. At least not in the first game of the season.
Tough, gritty and ugly helped Minnesota post back-to-back eight win seasons in 2013 and 2014. With more talent, there’s no reason to believe that mindset can’t get the Gophers back to that same level.