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September 1, 2017

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A Friday notes column with emphasis on last night’s opening nonconference win by the Gophers over Buffalo.

Tracy Claeys

The Gophers have new coaches and quarterbacks but their defensive pedigree is still in place. The success of the Jerry KillTracy Claeys coaching era from 2011 through last season was built on defense, often coming to the rescue of a sputtering offense with quarterback issues.

Minnesota was nearly a four touchdown favorite to defeat Buffalo but could only produce three points after a 14 point first quarter in coach P.J. Fleck’s debut game. Buffalo looked like an improved team after last season’s 2-10 record and had the best quarterback on the field in Tyree Jackson, but the Gophers should have done more offensively in their 17-7 win.

Minnesota’s offensive line was unimpressive and if they couldn’t push around a Mid-American Conference team, what lies ahead against Big Ten rivals, or even next week at Oregon State? Running the ball is supposed to be the Gophers’ strength but last night they had 239 yards passing and only 180 rushing.

The Gophers had a chance to go up 21-7 at halftime when redshirt senior quarterback Conor Rhoda threw an interception in the Bulls’ end zone late in the second quarter. After the game Fleck called it a “catastrophic mistake.”

Rhoda said the Bulls gave him an unexpected defensive look and that the error is something he can learn from. The emotional pain of the play was just the opposite of what he felt in the first quarter when he threw a 61-yard scoring pass to wide receiver Tyler Johnson.

Rhoda, a 22-year-old senior who Fleck had talked out of quitting football after last season, had never started a game before at home and it was the second touchdown pass of his career. The former Cretin-Derham Hall quarterback said he had a “ton of family” at the game and the touchdown pass was a fulfilling moment. His only other college career start was last season at Maryland when he also threw a touchdown pass.

After the game Fleck indicated the alternating quarterback system using both Rhoda and redshirt sophomore Demry Croft will continue.

Johnson caught six passes for 141 yards. He and another sophomore, safety Antoine Winfield Jr., were two of Minnesota’s biggest playmakers last night. Winfield knocked a ball away in the first half that might have gone for a Buffalo touchdown. He also blocked a field goal attempt and had five solo tackles, and assisted with two others. “That kid loves football,” Fleck said.

Winfield came into the game with the reputation of being an exceptional player on a promising defense. That unit held the Bulls to 61 yards rushing and 211 passing. Even though the score was close in the second half, the Gophers seemed likely to win because of the defense.

The sluggish offense, though, did little to dispel the preseason predictions Minnesota will have challenges scoring and the team will produce a mediocre season. Pick a record like 5-7, 6-6 or maybe 7-5. It’s only one game after last night, but so far expectations haven’t changed.

Announced attendance was 43,224 but there weren’t nearly that many fans in TCF Bank Stadium. Empty seats between the goal lines were numerous including some on the 50-yard line.

The Gophers are working to improve the fan experience at games. At the McNamara Alumni Center late yesterday afternoon food and beverage items were on sale, but “I’m a Fleck Fan” hats were free.

A person with the Bulls’ travel party said Buffalo draws about 20,000 fans per game, with a public season ticket base of around 10,000.

Fleck said the value is “priceless” of the reality TV series that is airing this summer about he and his family. During the month of August the NCAA doesn’t allow the recruiting of high school players, so the show placed attention on Fleck and his program in a way rivals couldn’t match. The series “Being P.J. Fleck” aired more than 100 times on ESPNU, ESPN2 and BTN prior to the end of August.

“…There was one team that wasn’t dead on national television in August and that was the University of Minnesota, four times for 30 minutes in people’s living rooms,” Fleck said. “You make sure people know that we’re going to be on TV at this time, and now dad, mom, brother, sister, uncle, (and) recruits are sitting in that room watching it while no one else can really have the contact with them.”

Fleck said the value of the series extended beyond recruiting. He heard from people who had been part of his life more than 10 years ago, and was also contacted by strangers. Some people shared stories about illness and the loss of relatives.

“…They say how you’ve influenced their life,” Fleck said. “That’s more than (the importance of) any money, that’s more than any win. That’s more than anything, and that’s the purpose of having the show is to make sure that our culture gets out to as many people as it possibly can, to serve and give through television.”

University of Minnesota alum and New York Times best selling author Harvey Mackay counted the late Muhammad Ali among his close friends. Mackay leaves for Rome next week to participate in the “Celebrity Fight Night” charity effort that Ali headlined for years with other celebrities. Among the events over several days will be a concert at the Roman Coliseum with Andrea Bocelli, Elton John and other entertainers.

Mackay played golf for the Gophers and coach Les Bolstad. He remembers Bolstad as being among the influential mentors in his life.

Glenn Caruso (photo courtesy of University of St. Thomas)

Glenn Caruso will pursue his 100th win as St. Thomas football coach when the Tommies open the season at home tomorrow against the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. His overall record is 99-15, including 59-5 at home and 17-7 in the NCAA playoffs.

The Tommies are ranked No. 5 in the Division3football.com preseason national poll. MIAC rival Saint John’s is No. 10.

Fans at tonight’s Twins-Royals game will see a video tribute to Joe Nathan who meets with media this afternoon to announce his official retirement from baseball. Among the franchise’s greatest closers ever, Nathan came to the Twins in November of 2003 in a trade with the Giants. It was a terrific deal for the Twins. The Giants received catcher A.J. Pierzynski and cash, while the Twins added Nathan, Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser.

The August 28 issue of Sports Illustrated lists the top NFL broadcasting teams and ranks former Timberwolves play-by-play man Kevin Harlan No. 5 along with his TV partner Rich Gannon, the former Vikings quarterback. “Best pipes in all of broadcasting,” S.I. wrote about Harlan.

The No. 1 pair in the listings is NBC’s Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth.

Big Ten Basketball Media Day, including the Gophers Richard Pitino and the Big Ten Conference’s other 13 coaches, will be held for the first time ever in New York’s famous Madison Square Garden on October 19.

The NHL Centennial Fan Arena, honoring 100 years of teams, players, and other memories in the National Hockey League, is travelling to various markets and will be at the Minnesota State Fair today through Monday. The Stanley Cup will be on display from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today as part of the centennial celebration, plus Minnesota Wild players Tyler Ennis and Jared Spurgeon will sign autographs from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m..

The NHL Centennial Fan Arena location is Expo Place at the corner of Cooper Street and Murphy Avenue on the northern end of the Fairgrounds, near Gate 2. Hours are 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. The attraction is free with paid admission to the State Fair.

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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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