Written By Andrew Fondrick (ZoneCoverage.com)
Fall is in the air and with it comes the drama of college football. The Gophers hosted South Dakota State University to kick off their 2019 season Thursday night at TCF Bank Stadium. In a game that heavily favored the maroon and gold, it took some late heroics to knock off their neighbors to the west.
The Jackrabbits, who came in as the No. 4 ranked team in the FCS preseason rankings, gave the Gophers all they could handle, and outplayed the Big Ten program for long stretches of the game. But in the end, the Gophers were able to hang on for a 28-21 victory, defending their home turf under the lights.
“That’s a really good football team over there,” head coach PJ Fleck said about SDSU in his post-game address to the media. “They have a chance to win the national championship in the FCS.”
Minnesota was able to earn a win to start the new year, but it wasn’t the convincing, drama free win the Gophers’ faithful had expected after an offseason that generated the highest expectation around Dinkytown in many years.
“We’re happy to be 1-0,” said Fleck. “I was told long time ago a win is a win. There’s hard wins, but there are no bad wins.”
Heading into the opener, there were questions surrounding the offense after sophomore quarterback Zack Annexstad saw his season end before it could even begin. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan started for Annexstad last season at the end of the year after an injury derailed his season, but there were still concerns Morgan wouldn’t be ready to step in as the long-term option under center.
Morgan did his part and played a decent game against the Jackrabbits, going 13-for-18 for 176 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He also helped to orchestrate an 18 play, 91-yard touchdown drive that took 10 minutes, 5 seconds off the clock.
While the quarterback play won’t wow on the stat sheet, it wasn’t the reason for the closer than expected battle. It was other aspects of the Gophers game that put the outcome in jeopardy. SDSU outgained Minnesota in total offense by almost 60 yards, putting up 367 yards with 174 yards on the ground, averaging 5.1 yards a carry.
“They did a great job,” Fleck said when asked about the SDSU running game. “I didn’t think we held inside very well, so I’ve got to go back and look at that, but again we’ve got to give them credit for a scheme that was really good.”
Compare the Jackrabbits success in the run game to the Gophers struggles on the ground, only averaging 3.1 yards per carry, and you could argue that Morgan was one of the few bright spots Minnesota had on the night.
“I thought Tanner played really well,” Fleck said. “I think he showed he can even do more as we keep going forward. He threw the interception, but he responds really well. The more he plays, the better he’s going to get.”
Far and away the biggest play of the game came on a great connection from Morgan to sophomore receiver Rashod Bateman, who made a sensational one handed catch for a 42-yard touchdown.
RASHOD BATEMAN REALLY SNAGGED THAT 😱
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) August 30, 2019
“Rashod is one of the hardest working guys on this team,” Morgan said when asked about the incredible play. “He just made a lot of elite plays and I am just blessed to have number 13 (Bateman) out there.”
Bateman was playing with a heavy heart just two weeks after the death of his uncle who he described as a father figure to him.
“Tonight I just went out there and played for him,” Bateman said. “It was pretty special. I know he’s always going to be with me, so I just have to go out and ball for him.”
Bateman finished the night with five catches for 132 yards and the top-10 touchdown grab. In a night that the Jackrabbits made a point to take away star wideout Tyler Johnson, Bateman showed they will be a formidable one-two punch in 2019.
After making the great pass earlier in the game, Morgan was also on the receiving end of a great play for a two-point conversion on the Gophers own version of the “Philly Special,” made famous by the Philadelphia Eages in Super Bowl LII.
THE GOPHER SPECIAL 〽️pic.twitter.com/obcr74AyS2
— FOX Sports North (@fsnorth) August 30, 2019
“I loved it, he looked like all the receivers out there,” Bateman said. “It was pretty exciting to see him make that catch, we worked on that play a lot during fall camp and we finally got to showcase it tonight.”
“It was a dime too,” Morgan added with a smile, giving wideout Tyler Johnson credit for his pass on the play.
The defense also got into the act with a score of their own after the Jackrabbits started the second half with the ball. After a botched snap, the pressure finally hit home on freshman quarterback J’Bore Gibbs who then rushed a throw for a pick-six that hit senior defensive back Chris Williamson between the numbers for an easy 43-yard INT return. The extra point gave the Gophers their largest lead at 20-7.
But after falling behind 21-20, and the game midway through the fourth quarter, pressure was the key ingredient again for the Gophers defense to turn the momentum in their favor for good. Gibbs was hit again at midfield, forcing a fumble that DE Winston DeLattiboudere was able to jump on, leading to Minnesota’s go-ahead touchdown.
“After I got up I didn’t even want to give the ball to the ref,” DeLattiboudere joked when asked about the recovery.
Even though SDSU played a strong game and put up a great effort against the Gophers, a few costly mistakes may have kept the Jackrabbits from upsetting the home team and celebrating all the way back to Brookings.
The Jackrabbits had two touchdowns taken off the board by way of self-inflicted penalties. The first come on a kickoff return for a touchdown that was brought back by a holding penalty, immediately after the Bateman catch, that could have given SDSU their first lead of the game with a successful PAT attempt.
Then in the third quarter, an illegal block in the back negated a 53-yard catch and run on a blown coverage assignment by the Gophers.
Minnesota advances to 7-0 all-time against SDSU, with all games being played in Minneapolis.
The Gophers extended their nation leading non-conference winning streak to 16 games. They’ve won 20 of 21 non-conference games overall.
Minnesota will have to make corrections quickly with a difficult next test. The Gophers will head to the west coast to take on Fresno State on Sept. 7 with a 9:30 pm. kickoff.