I’m not going to lie to you, there was a point in the fourth quarter of Thursday night’s South Dakota State-Minnesota game when I really regretted picking the Gophers to win the B1G West. One look at the final score is enough to indicate this team isn’t quite ready to compete for a division crown just yet.
But, to use the old writer’s cliché, let’s pump the brakes a bit on the Golden Gophers. That is, let’s not write this team off just yet. As ugly as the 28-21 win over an FCS opponent was, it’s way too early to assume Minnesota’s canoe is headed straight for a waterfall.
Let’s just start with the obvious: Minnesota was lucky on Thursday night, there’s no disputing that. The Gophers essentially downed the Jackrabbits thanks to three game-changing plays in the season opener:
- Rashod Bateman’s ridiculous one-handed touchdown catch in the second quarter
- Chris Williamson’s pick-six on an ill-advised pass from J’Bore Gibbs early in the third quarter
- A botched handoff early in the fourth quarter by Gibbs that resulted in a Minnesota fumble recovery
Those two South Dakota State turnovers were unforced, by the way. So, yes, the Golden Gophers are 1-0, but they needed a lot of help from the Jackrabbits to get it.
Minnesota rushed for just 132 yards on 41 carries, a 3.1 average on the night. The pass protection was awful, leading to Tanner Morgan being sacked twice and getting pressured essentially every time he took the snap — at least it seemed that way. Somehow, he still completed 13-of-18 passes for 176 yards with just one interception.
South Dakota State’s Cade Johnson essentially had his way the Gopher defense, totaling 90 receiving yards and 25 rushing yards on seven total touches. He played like an All-American at the FBS level.
There’s no doubt that all of that is concerning, especially with a trip to Fresno State on the horizon — a team that won 12 games a year ago and took the Gophers to the wire at TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota’s offensive line and it’s defense are going to have to perform a lot better in nine days.
But, if you want to look on the bright side, there are a few things you can actually point to as positives from Thursday night’s near disaster.
First off, and most importantly, Minnesota found a way to finish the game with more points on the scoreboard. At the end of the day, regardless of how much luck is involved, that’s all that really matters. Sure, it took more than 54 minutes to get to that point, but it happened.
Two of Minnesota’s expected stars, Bateman and running back Rodney Smith, proved to be really solid. Bateman finished the night with 132 yards and a highlight-reel touchdown grab on five receptions. Smith finished with 92 yards on 21 carries, and accounted for 29 of Minnesota’s 34 yards on the game-winning scoring drive in the fourth quarter.
And, in case you forgot, this was just the first game of the season. I know, I know, the Gophers still should’ve pounded South Dakota State into the Lester soil in Minneapolis. But the Jackrabbits were a tough FCS opponent, and presented a different challenge for P.J. Fleck’s bunch in the opening week.
Just because Minnesota looked ugly against an FCS foe doesn’t immediately rule it out of the B1G West race.
In fact, Michigan finished the 2007 season with a 9-4 record and a second-place finish in the B1G despite a season-opening loss to Appalachian State. In 2016, both Iowa and Northwestern lost to FCS programs — North Dakota State and Illinois State, respectively — but managed to end the year with winning marks in conference play.
The Hawkeyes finished that year 6-3 in league play, good enough for second in the West. Northwestern was 5-4.
Those previous experiences don’t negate everything that happened on Thursday night. Minnesota didn’t look anything like a contender in the B1G West in its season opener. Not many teams do in the first game of the year.
So, for now, let’s slow down on the idea that Minnesota has slipped from contender to pretender based on one performance. Let’s not write this team off with 11 games still remaining on the schedule. Let’s give the Gophers a chance to correct the mistakes and see what happens next weekend in Fresno.
It could be a totally different story.