Gophers receiver Dylan Wright was stretching during warm-ups before last Saturday’s 30-23 win over Nebraska when head coach P.J. Fleck came over to share a short message and a pat on the back.
Wright returned to Minnesota last week after losing his brother, Aaron Lowe, the University of Utah cornerback killed in a shooting in late September. Wright was excused from the team’s previous game, a 20-13 win over Purdue on Oct. 2, to return to home to Mesquite, Texas, to grieve with his family and friends.
“It’s a horrific event to go through, knowing that your brother is no longer there,” Fleck said to reporters Monday. “They have an unbelievable past together, a unique story, and they’re incredibly close. For young people to lose people at that age, especially somebody very close to them, is tragic.”
Wright’s return came as fellow starting-caliber receiver Daniel Jackson was unavailable with an undisclosed issue against the Cornhuskers. Fleck said Jackson is “questionable” when Minnesota (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) plays host to Maryland (4-2, 1-2) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium.
The Gophers have had a revolving door at receiver this season, and it’s contributed to the struggles of Minnesota’s passing offense during the first half of the season. But with Chris Autman-Bell the healthiest he has been through ankle ailments against the Huskers, Minnesota’s passing game had its best day of the season.
Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan had a season-high 214 yards and a season-high-tying 25 attempts. With Cole Kramer’s one touchdown pass and two from Morgan, the Gophers had a season-high three TDs.
The Gophers had a 50-50 run-pass balance in the first half and finished the game with runs on 63.2 percent of snaps, their most equitable run-pass rate across the first six games.
Minnesota relied on Autman-Bell, who had 11 receptions for 103 yards and a touchdown. But Mike Brown-Stephens had his second consecutive big game with three receptions for 58 and a TD, and Wright added two catches for 17 yards. Brady Boyd had his first career collegiate reception.
The Gophers also got tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford more involved with three catches for 23 yards and a TD, and running back Mar’Keise Irving had a catch out of the backfield.
“It was exactly the type of performance that I want us to continue to have, where the ball is distributed evenly,” Gophers offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. said.
But Autman-Bell’s career-high number of catches, including nine in the first half, gave Minnesota’s offense its biggest boost.
“Having Chris on the field in any capacity is so critical for us because of his leadership, his intangibles, his grit,” Sanford said. “To me, Chris is the guy that represents the kind of culture we are about. Obviously, he’s extremely talented.”
Wright has had some eye-popping moments of his own, including his 13-yard touchdown catch against Ohio State and his 39-yard catch, stiff-arm and run against Colorado. While Fleck and Co. want the 6-foot-3, 215-pound transfer from Texas A&M on the field, they are practicing patience and understanding.
“There’s way more important things in life than football — way more,” Fleck said. “That’s why he wasn’t here for a while. I’ll never change that way. We’re never going to put football or winning before something like that. We always leave it up to the player of what they feel like they need to do to heal. He’s healing; I don’t think he’ll ever be healed. He’s healing, and he’s taking every day one day at a time. He has his good faith, and he’ll rely on that. Our team’s going to be here to support him.”
The Gophers will have an advantage at the wideout position Saturday with the Terrapins missing two of their top receivers. This week, Jeshaun Jones joined Dontay Demus Jr. as primary pass catchers out with season-ending injuries, leaving Rakim Jarett as Maryland’s No. 1 receiver.