Gophers grind out a win vs. Buffalo in P.J. Fleck’s debut

Published 10:36 pm Thursday, August 31, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS — Tyler Johnson had a 61-yard touchdown reception from Conor Rhoda in the first quarter to give Minnesota a spark in coach P.J. Fleck’s first game, and the Gophers grinded out a 17-7 victory over Buffalo in the season opener on Thursday night.

Fleck led his players in a pregame sprint out of the tunnel beneath a vintage late-summer evening sky, and Johnson racked up 141 yards on six catches by halftime. The rest of the night took on a considerably slower pace, with the Gophers content to call inside handoffs on read-option plays behind new quarterbacks Rhoda and Demry Croft.

Rhoda started the game and went 12 for 21 for 176 yards, but he threw an interception in the end zone in the second quarter. Croft rushed six times for 32 yards and completed 7 of 11 passes for 63 yards.

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Emmitt Carpenter missed two of his three field goal tries for the Gophers, but Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks were able to find enough room to wear down the Bulls and run out the clock. Brooks scored on a short run near the end of the first quarter.

Anthony Johnson gave the Gophers secondary trouble with 11 grabs for 140 yards, including a 50-yard completion that set up his 16-yard touchdown catch from Tyree Jackson on the next play for the Bulls to tie the game late in the first quarter.

The Gophers have relied heavily on their defense this decade, and that’ll probably be the case again this season despite the departure of several starters. Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. had a sack, a blocked field goal and two pass breakups. The Gophers forced eight punts while holding the Bulls to 51 yards on 22 rushes.

Jackson finished 22 for 42 for 211 yards and one interception. Khalil Hodge had 20 tackles.

For starters

Fleck became the first Gophers head coach to win his first game with the program since John Gutekunst beat Bowling Green on Sept. 13, 1986. Jim Wacker (1992), Glen Mason (1997), Tim Brewster (2007), Jeff Horton (2010 interim), Jerry Kill (2011) and Tracy Claeys (2015 interim) all lost.

The takeaway

Buffalo: The Bulls can’t be disappointed with their effort on the road, despite dropping to 0-8 in their history against Big Ten teams. After finishing 2-10 in coach Lance Leipold’s second season with a freshman quarterback in Jackson, they’re bound to be better this year. For a program that has produced only two winning seasons in 18 years at the FBS level, a competitive display like this can’t be discounted.

Minnesota: The Gophers just needed to win this game and get it out of the way, to reduce the pressure on their inexperienced quarterbacks and make sure Fleck wasn’t embarrassed with a loss against a lower-tier opponent in his power conference debut . Johnson’s emergence was a promising development for a young collection of wide receivers, not to mention the quarterback duo. But starting with the blocking up front, the entire offense has a lot of work to do before Big Ten play.

Up next

Buffalo: The Bulls play at Army next weekend. The Black Knights are coming off an 8-5 season, their first winning record since 2010.

Minnesota: The Gophers ought to have a tougher time next weekend in their first visit to Oregon State in program history. The Beavers are 11-25 over the last three years but they played a competitive game in Minnesota last season, losing 30-23.