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Zulgad: Spin control: P.J. Fleck attempts to find positives in Gophers’ victory that has few of them

MINNEAPOLIS — Much of Thursday morning was spent expressing seldom-heard or felt optimism about the Gophers football program.

A video was done devoting 2 minutes, 20 seconds — the maximum allowed on Twitter — to the fact the Gophers had a real chance to win the Big Ten West. A podcast was produced with Chip Scoggins in which the Star Tribune sports columnist and longtime chronicler of Gophers football said eight wins should be the floor and also spoke highly of where P.J. Fleck had the program.

Nowhere in any of these conversations was it broached that the Gophers could lose their opener on Thursday night to South Dakota State at TCF Bank Stadium. The Jackrabbits might have been ranked fourth in the Football Championship Subdivision coaches poll, but they were still a full division below the Gophers and this meant Minnesota was supposed to roll.

Not only did that not happen, but the Gophers needed a fourth-quarter fumble from SDSU quarterback J’Bore Gibbs to get possession at the Jackrabbits’ 34-yard line and score the go-ahead touchdown on Mohamed Ibrahim’s 1-yard run with 5 minutes, 39 seconds remaining for a 28-21 victory. The Gophers had trailed 21-20 and got the two-point conversion on Tyler Johnson’s pass to quarterback Tanner Morgan.

The Gophers’ version of the “Philly Special” came in a half in which style points were few and far between for a team that won three of its final four games last season, including a victory in the Quick Lane Bowl, averaging 31.5 points on offense and giving up only 14.75 points during that time.

The Gophers sideline and those who remained in the announced crowd of 49,112 celebrated as Gibbs was thrown to the turf for a 7-yard loss on fourth-and-10 from the Minnesota 32-yard line with 1:20 remaining but it’s just as likely they were all breathing a sigh of relief.

Fleck did his best to put a positive spin on the victory but that was expected. “I told these guys after the game, there are no bad wins,” Fleck said. “The media can say that’s a bad win, but at the end of the day a win is a win, we won  the football game, and against a tough group of guys. The mission coming into today was to get that first win of the season, whether it’s by 20, 40, or seven, we got it done. I know we can play a lot better and the guys in the locker room know that, but they were handed a very difficult test, and they found a way to pass that test.”

Minnesota, which led 13-7 at halftime thanks to Rashod Bateman’s fantastic one-handed touchdown catch of Morgan’s 42-yard pass late in the second quarter, had managed to blow a 20-7 third-quarter lead and fall behind by a point as SDSU scored on back-to-back possessions.

The Gophers appeared to be in enormous trouble before Gibbs’ miscue and even after it one had to wonder if Fleck’s team was as good as some of us thought when the sun came up Thursday. Fleck certainly will have the undivided attention of his players as they prepare for next Saturday’s game at Fresno State.

Among the most concerning issues: The play of an offensive line that appeared to get little push and a defense that had far too many breakdowns and did not resemble the unit that coordinator Joe Rossi did such a good job of turning around late last season. SDSU finished with 23 first downs and 367 total yards; the Gophers had 17 first downs and 308 yards. It did not help that defensive end Carter Coughlin was limited and linebacker Kamal Martin sat out for disciplinary reasons. Fleck said Martin will return against Fresno State.

The main highlight for the Gophers came with the score tied 7-7 and the ball at the Jackrabbits’ 42-yard line late in the second quarter. Morgan, working out of the shotgun, took the snap on third-and-13 and let loose with a pass down the right sideline for Bateman.

Bateman had blown past SDSU cornerback Don Gardner and going full speed pulled in Morgan’s pass with his left hand just before safety Josh Manchigiah arrived. Bateman began the process of making the catch at the 5-yard line and secured the football with both hands just as he crossed the goal line with 49 seconds remaining.

It was the type of catch that would make Stefon Diggs or Adam Thielen envious. It also was a catch that was all over Twitter moments after it happened.

Johnson, a fantastic player who appears certain to play in the NFL, has gotten much of the attention when it comes to the Gophers’ receivers. Johnson led Minnesota last season with 78 catches for 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns in 13 games last season and started this year on Bilentikoff Watch List for the country’s best wide receiver. Bateman was second with 51 catches for 704 yards and six touchdowns in 13 games.

But if opponents are going to pay extra attention to Johnson — and SDSU certainly did — Bateman is going to benefit and that’s exactly what the sophomore receiver did.

While Johnson had only one catch for 12 yards in the opening 30 minutes and three catches for 28 yards, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Bateman caught five passes for 132 yards. His first reception came on the first play from scrimmage and went for 24 yards. There also were receptions of 12 yards, 31 yards and 23 yards.

Bateman’s work on the 31-yard catch showed his ability to make something out of nothing. Facing a second-and-7 from the SDSU 34, Morgan’s short pass looked like it was going to be a 4-yard gain as the Jackrabbits’ defender had a chance to tackle Bateman at the 30. Bateman was able to get free and took the ball to the SDSU 3-yard line and three plays later Seth Green scored on a 1-yard run to give the Gophers a 7-0 lead.

Unfortunately for the Gophers, Bateman’s catch didn’t result in Minnesota cruising to an easy win over a lesser foe. Even after Gibbs’ pass was picked by defensive back Chris Williamson and returned for 43 yards on the opening possession of the third quarter to put the Gophers up by 13.

Does this mean the Gophers aren’t as good as many of us thought or was this just a surprisingly poor performance? After what we saw Thursday, it’s a question worth asking no matter how Fleck chooses to spin the answer.





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