MINNEAPOLIS — The fourth play after halftime Thursday showed what should happen when a Big Ten program plays a lower-level FCS school at home.
South Dakota State freshman quarterback J’Bore Gibbs panicked after grabbing a bouncing snap and threw an interception to Chris Williamson; the Gophers cornerback easily returned it for a touchdown and a 20-7 lead at TCF Bank Stadium.
But what happened next was much different. The Jackrabbits bounced back with two touchdowns — one to cap a 10-play, 92-yard drive — to take a 21-20 lead into the fourth quarter.
U fans hovered over the panic button, or simply left the stadium, until South Dakota State presented a gift fumble to Minnesota in the fourth quarter. The Gophers scored five plays later and added a two-point conversion to escape with a 28-21 season-opening win.
“There is hard wins; there is no bad wins, and that is my message to the football team,” Fleck said in his postgame news conference. “That’s a really good football team out there. People all in here and some other people are going to say, ‘Well, yeah, they are FCS.’ They have a chance to win the national championship at FCS.”
South Dakota State, which is ranked fourth by FCS coaches, and all schools at that have 22 fewer scholarships than the likes of Minnesota, and the U nearly lost to an FCS school for the second time since 2011. In Jerry Kill’s first season, North Dakota State posted a 28-point second quarter and cruised to a 37-24 win.
To start his third year, Gophers coach P.J. Fleck could exhale when Minnesota got its first sack of the game on fourth-and-10 with the Jackrabbits driving in a two-minute drill into Minnesota territory.
Fleck’s team had many problems exposed along the offensive line and defensively heading to Fresno State next week. South Dakota State out-gained Minnesota 367-308, had a kickoff return called back for a penalty and averaged 5.5 yards per rush to the U’s 3.7.
The game was trending to have the first Power Five team upset by an FCS school since Nichols State fell to lowly Kansas last September … until the fumble. When Gibbs and Pierre Strong botched a handoff, Winston DeLattiboudere’s eyes grew as wide as softballs as he jumped on the football. Fleck summed up that feeling succinctly: “joy.”
To take a slim 13-7 halftime lead, the Gophers scored on a quick strike and a slow, stubborn drive.
The highlight reel play was receiver Rashod Bateman cradling a deep pass with his right hand before securing it with his left as he crossed the goal line for a 42-yard score with a minute left in the half. He finished with five receptions for 132 yards and touchdown, all in the first half.
Two drives earlier, the Gophers had to grind out an 18-play, 91-yard touchdown drive that took 10 minutes before Seth Green’s one-yard scoring rush. The U’s last drive was over 10 minutes was in 2004.
To keep that drive alive, the U needed a fourth-down conversion, then found an opening as Morgan found Bateman for a 31-yard catch and run; it was only the second play of the drive longer than 10 yards.
Minnesota’s defense broke down after their own long drive, giving up big chunks: 17 yards, 11, 11, nine and 17 before a one-yard touchdown run from Gibbs.
The first-quarter lowlight came on the U’s second drive, when Morgan tried to thread a pass into double coverage to Bateman. It was intercepted by SDSU safety Josh Manchigiah.
“I got to clean that up,” Morgan said. “Throw that in the second window or turn it down. Just got to continue to be better at the little things.”
Big, little or everything: the Gophers have to improve. “All areas,” Fleck said.
Gophers senior linebacker Kamal Martin was suspended for Thursday’s game, the second and final absence related to a punishment that started with sitting out the Quick Lane Bowl last December.
“I’m not going to sacrifice winning for doing the right thing and teaching young people lessons,” Fleck said. “That doesn’t mean he has to be off the football team, but you are going to have to pay a price.”
Fleck said Martin, of Burnsville, will be available next week at Fresno State.
Defensive end Carter Coughlin, receiver Chris Autman-Bell and Williamson suffered injuries during the game. … The announced attendance was 49,112, the largest crowd since 49,145 against Iowa in 2016. … Tyler Johnson surpassed 2,000 career receiving yards, and Rodney Smith eclipsed 3,000 rushing yards.