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Give U Credit for Impressive Opener

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August 31, 2018

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Here’s what was learned from Minnesota’s 48-10 season opening win over New Mexico State last night at TCF Bank Stadium:

The Golden Gophers were impressive. Don’t be lazy in evaluating this game by dismissing Minnesota’s performance because it came against a poor team. After two games, including a 29-7 loss last Saturday to Wyoming in Las Cruces, the Aggies are living up to their reputation as a college football bottom-feeder, but there was still a lot to like about how the Gophers played.

Start with the effort. The Gophers were motivated for four quarters. Offense, defense and special teams were mentally sharp. Instead of buying into the nonchalance the fan base had about the Aggies, the Gophers came to play and avoided mental lapses in effort and execution.

Second-year coach P.J. Fleck preaches “the ball is the program.” Quarterbacks Zack Annexstad and Tanner Morgan, playing in their first college games, didn’t throw one interception. Minnesota had one fumble, a first half miscue by Annexstad, that set up a short drive and lone touchdown in the game by the Aggies.

Annexstad was 16 of 33, with two touchdown passes. He threw with occasional accuracy and played with poise in his debut as a true freshman and walk-on quarterback. Fleck even said after the game that Annexstad reassured him on the sideline things would be okay after the quarterback fumbled the ball.

Minnesota had 227 yards passing last night—rare air compared to the failed passing attack in 2017. Annexstad’s touchdown passes were to junior wide receiver Tyler Johnson who showed an elusiveness that could put him in consideration for All-Big Ten honors this fall.

Encouraging also was the pass catching performance of true freshman wide receiver Rashod Bateman, who could be the best of a boatload of newcomers on offense, defense and special teams. He had five receptions in the game as did Johnson who totaled a team-leading 100 yards in catches. Redshirt freshman Chris Autman-Bell had four receptions and showed Minnesota has potential depth and quality with its wide receivers roster.

It’s difficult to judge an offensive line’s performance during live game action. After coaches study film, evaluations become much more precise, but Minnesota’s unit must have been doing more than a little right because the Aggies didn’t have a single sack and the Gophers rushed for over 300 yards led by Rodney Smith’s 156 on 24 carries.

Redshirt freshman right guard Blaise Andries pancaked an Aggie tackler on Minnesota’s second touchdown of the game. Andries helped create a nice lane for Seth Green to run nine yards into the end zone in the second quarter sending Minnesota ahead 14-10.

The use of Green showed creativity by Fleck and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. If the Gophers have a category labeled “utility players” then the redshirt sophomore from Woodbury is near the top of the list. He is a former quarterback converted this year to tight end and then to wide receiver. Last night near the goal line Fleck twice sent him in the game to replace Annexstad and both times he ran for touchdowns.

Zack Annexstad photo courtesy of Minnesota Athletic Communications

Look for more Green in the running quarterback role throughout the season. It probably won’t be long before in spot situations he will be told to pass the ball, too. But make no mistake, Fleck is committed to Annexstad as his No. 1 QB.

Giving Antoine Winfield Jr. the punt return job is another move by the coaching staff to be creative and place playmakers in situations where they can contribute. Winfield, who hadn’t returned punts since high school, not only looked confident all game making the right decisions but in the second quarter he broke several tackles in returning a punt 76 yards for a touchdown.

Winfield is a difference-maker at his safety position, too. He is part of a secondary that could be better than anticipated, partly because of true freshman cornerback Terell Smith who impressed last night. The Aggies picked on him without much success.

Smith had eight tackles, tied for the team high with senior linebacker Blake Cashman who could be headed for a special season. Cashman contributed one of the defense’s four sacks—not an insignificant total for a team that struggled last season to put pressure on quarterbacks.

Defensive tackle Sam Renner, a redshirt junior, blocked a punt in the third quarter that was recovered by the Gophers and led to a field goal. The blocked punt and Winfield’s punt return for a score were only part of an impressive night by special teams.

Redshirt senior Emmit Carpenter kicked field goals of 27 and 24 yards and showed a strong leg on kickoffs. Redshirt junior punter Jacob Herbers averaged 41 yards per punt, with a high of 51.

The Gophers were sharp on punt and kickoff coverage. One reason was the speed of Minnesota’s players. Fleck and his staff have improved the overall speed on offense, defense and special teams. The Gophers can run and that’s one of the prerequisites for winning in today’s college football.

After the game Fleck let it be known there was much about how his team played that he viewed as positive. He also sets a high bar for his team. “It’s very, very difficult to exceed my expectations because the minute you’re getting close…they immediately go up,” he said.

The Gophers have 11 more games to go and the opposition will become more difficult. That starts with the September 8 game against Fresno State, one of the best teams from the Mountain West Conference and led by an exceptional coach in Jeff Tedford. But for one game the Gophers started the right way, delivering a performance exceeding expectations based on the team’s inexperience.

The Gophers have 113 players on their roster and 60 of them—or 53.1 percent—are true freshmen or redshirt freshmen. Those are the highest numbers in the country among major college football programs.

Youth wasn’t the storyline last night. How well the Gophers played was.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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