The Minnesota Golden Gophers had a solid first half, a shaky third quarter and a resilient fourth to produce a 31-26 win over Miami (Ohio) in the first nonconference game of the season Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium.
Minnesota led 21-3 at the half, and head coach P.J. Fleck went into the tunnel telling KFAN he was “not comfortable,” but his team returned to the field a bit too loose. Fleck often talks about “starting fast, accelerating in the middle and finishing strong.” Well, on Saturday, they went in reverse at the midpoint.
Minnesota's Mid-American Conference opponent scored 17 consecutive points to cut the Gophers' lead to 21-20 early in the fourth quarter. Minnesota then stiffened up — scoring a touchdown, netting an interception and receiving a long field goal — to provide enough of a margin for their first win of the season. They did it with top running back Mo Ibrahim out for the year; top receiver Chris Autman-Bell out another week; starting safety Jordan Howden held out; and emerging wideout Dylan Wright leaving with an injury.
“What I saw at the end was grit. It was courage. It was togetherness,” Fleck said. “And they found a way.”
In the third quarter, Miami outscored Minnesota 10-0 and outgained Minnesota 128-15. Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan didn’t complete a pass in the third quarter and didn’t attempt a pass in the fourth as they leaned heavily on new No. 1 tailback Trey Potts.
With a one-point lead, Fleck and running back coach Kenni Burns told Potts: “This drive is pivotal,” he recalled. “They were going to give me a lot of responsibility on that drive.”
Did they ever.
Potts carried the ball on all five plays and busted the last one for a 21-yard touchdown. It extended the Gophers' lead to 28-20. Tyler Nubin intercepted Miami QB Brett Gabbert three plays later, and new kicker Matthew Trickett hit a career long 50-yard field goal to put the game out of reach.
Gabbert, the brother of NFL quarterback Blaine Gabbert, threw his first of two touchdown passes to cut the Minnesota lead to 21-20 with 12 minutes left in the game. And the Gophers turnaround was started by true freshman Mar’Keise Irving, who muffed the ensuing kickoff but found the corner for a 43-yard return. It was the first big play for the Gophers since halftime.
“That got everything going,” Fleck said.
The Gophers nearly iced the game on Nubin’s pass breakup on fourth down with four minutes left, but Minnesota defensive tackle Rashad Cheney was flagged for roughing-the-passer to extend the drive. Gabbert then connected with Mac Hippenhammer for a 33-yard TD on the next play to make it 31-26.
“It was a lack of execution, maybe,” Nubin said. “Our guys fight hard all game. We have a lot of response, a lot of grit. But it was just the execution part that got us in trouble.”
To open the game, Gabbert fumbled on third and short, and Minnesota’s Justus Harris recovered. Seven plays later, Potts’ 4-yard rush put Minnesota up 7-0. The Gophers punted and then scored on the next two drives. Morgan and Wright connected for a 31-yard catch along the sideline and for a 25-yard touchdown to take a 14-3 lead. Morgan found Daniel Jackson for a 6-yard touchdown pass and the 21-3 margin at the break.
But it didn’t end nearly as smoothly as it started.