Minnesota football: From 22 freshmen to no-name kicker, Gophers needed everybody in shorthanded win
P.J. Fleck looked around at his staff during Minnesota’s flight to Lincoln, Neb., on Friday night. Every assistant, spread out for social distancing, had his laptop open.
Every single one was asleep. Fleck snapped a photo and sent it to his wife Heather to encapsulate the moment.
And the year.
“It’s been a long season,” the Golden Gophers coach said. “It’s been a long week.”
Exhaustion might define Minnesota football this season. The entire sport, really. But the Gophers somehow overcame it in a 24-17 win over Nebraska on Saturday that was beyond gutsy.
More than 3 weeks between games. The better part of them spent in quarantine. Then a week-plus of practice with basically no scout teams to run against. Preparing players some Minnesota fans have maybe never even heard of to play a Big Ten football game.
COVID-19 has hit a lot of programs hard. But with more than 40 players and staff out at one point, the Gophers’ outbreak has been one of the nation’s largest.
They barely fielded a team last month against Purdue, then had to cancel games against Wisconsin and Northwestern. Saturday marked the Gophers’ 1st game in 22 days, and even it almost didn’t happen.
“What they’ve been through, it’s unbelievable,” Fleck told reporters before the team flew home Saturday afternoon. “I know we only see it from the outside, you guys, but the internal — nobody knows how hard it is for the student-athletes right now … plus coaches.”
A total of 33 players were out Saturday. Fleck said 1 more unavailable offensive lineman could have spelled a 3rd straight cancellation for his team.
The Gophers started a freshman right tackle and dressed just 4 defensive linemen and 2 tight ends. Their best player opted out during the outbreak.
Some of the usual suspects did usual suspect things — quarterback Tanner Morgan coming up in the clutch, wideout Chris Autman-Bell looking like a No. 1 receiver in Rashod Bateman’s absence, Mohamed Ibrahim running hard at less than 100 percent, defensive end Boye Mafe tearing around the end for big plays.
But this was largely a makeshift effort. And it worked.
“No one really came out there and said that, ‘Oh, we have a younger group or we have people that are out,'” said Mafe, who had 4 tackles and a strip sack Saturday. “We kind of said, like, ‘This is what we have, and this is all we have. So let’s go fight with what we have.'”
For the 1st time since maybe the opener, Minnesota’s defense actually had most of its depth and experience available. But this was a group that came in ranked dead last in FBS in yards allowed per play, averaging 7.71.
It gave up 4.7 against a Huskers offense that had been clicking in previous weeks.
The Gophers benefited from some questionable play-calling by Nebraska coach Scott Frost and several overthrows of open receivers by Adrian Martinez. A suspect holding call negated a Martinez touchdown run in the 2nd half, and Nebraska was without defensive back Cam Taylor-Britt the final 2 quarters following a bang-bang targeting call.
But Minnesota manned up.
That was even more true on the offensive line. True freshman Aireontae Ersery made his 1st career start at right tackle. Sophomore Nathan Boe filled in at center for unavailable John Michael Schmitz. Redshirt freshman JJ Guedet rotated in throughout the morning and early afternoon.
The Gophers rushed for 206 yards and passed for 181. They averaged 5.3 yards per play and didn’t allow a sack.
“They did an elite job,” Morgan said. “I’m so proud of those guys, the way they battled and played so hard today.”
In Minnesota’s 1st game since Bateman opted out for a 2nd time this year, Morgan found reserve wideout Clay Geary 4 times for 32 yards, including a 1st-down pass on the Gophers’ final drive that helped them salt the game away. Freshman Daniel Jackson added 3 receptions for 43 yards.
And while Ibrahim made program history with a 7th straight century-mark day, fellow running back Cam Wiley had his moment — a 61-yard, 2nd-quarter gallop that put Minnesota in position to take a 3-point halftime lead.
Sophomore tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford even joined in the festivities, catching a 4-yard touchdown pass that made it 17-14 with 1 1/2 minutes left in the 2nd quarter.
Minnesota never trailed again.
“The young guys played extremely well,” Morgan said. “And again, we talked about it all week is, it just doesn’t matter if this is going to be your 1st snap or your thousandth, it’s play hard, play with ‘extreme how’; that’s all that matters, is play for each other. We had a lot of young guys who maybe hadn’t played a ton in the past, but it doesn’t matter. They played at a high level today, and they played really hard. So that’s all you can ask for.”
Even the kicking game got a boost from a relative unknown. Redshirt senior Anders Gelecinskyj was perfect on 3 point-after attempts and made a 31-yard field goal late in the 1st quarter.
The Bloomington, Minn. native transferred from Division II Minnesota State and had never kicked in an FBS game before. He hadn’t kicked in a game at any level since 2016.
“He’s a homegrown guy,” Fleck said. “Just so, so excited for him and what he was able to do.”
The same goes for the 22 freshmen who saw the field Saturday as Minnesota — now 3-3 and hoping for a makeup date with border rival Wisconsin, depending on what the B1G decides to do with its championship weekend — seeks to build for 2021 and beyond.
“This has given us an opportunity to play a lot of young kids,” Fleck said. “You’ve got a lot of young players who are failing and growing and succeeding and learning. And that’s all we want them to keep doing.”