Croft returns but team falls short of comeback

Gophers quarterback Demry Croft shared starting snaps with Conor Rhoda before a disciplinary suspension sidelined him earlier in the season.

Quarterback Demry Croft prepares to pass the ball during the game against Michigan State on Saturday, Oct. 14 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. The Spartans beat the Gophers 30-27.

Ellen Schmidt

Quarterback Demry Croft prepares to pass the ball during the game against Michigan State on Saturday, Oct. 14 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. The Spartans beat the Gophers 30-27.

Jack Warrick

Gophers quarterback Demry Croft had a return to remember after three games of no playing time.

Croft threw 163 yards and three touchdowns in the fourth quarter as Minnesota (3-3 overall, 0-3 Big Ten) fell 30-27 to No. 21 Michigan State (5-1 overall, 3-0 Big Ten) at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday.

“If we lose [quarterback Conor Rhoda], at some point, you had to be able to play [Croft] so we did that. This was not a knee jerk reaction,” Fleck said. “I had to make a decision in the second half, and I felt like with [Croft’s] legs we could create more.”

Rhoda played starting quarterback for the last three games and most of the first half Saturday night. In the first two weeks, Rhoda and Croft shared snaps in a competition for the starting spot, before a suspension contributed to sidelining Croft the past three games.

“Trust is built over a very long period of time, it’s not built on just some ‘OK I won’t do that,’” Fleck said. “Trust is very hard to gain and very easy to lose.”

Croft entered the game with 6:28 to play in the first half. Rhoda failed to convert two turnovers that gave the Gophers good field position into touchdowns, settling for field goals both times. 

In Croft’s first drive of the game, he started with a 21-yard pass to wide receiver Tyler Johnson and later a 6-yard pass to Shannon Brooks for a first down. The momentum came to a screeching stop when Croft threw an interception to finish his first drive back.

He didn’t get benched after the interception and stayed in the rest of the game, which made it Rhoda’s turn to watch from the sidelines.

Croft and the Gophers offense had one full drive in the third quarter as Michigan State’s offense stayed on the field for 13:28 of the 15 minute quarter. 

At the start of the fourth quarter, the score was 23-6 Michigan State. That was when the Gophers offense finally clicked with Croft.

“I think after I got hit by a Michigan State linebacker it kind of opened me up a little bit,” Croft said.

Croft’s offense scored a touchdown on each of the last three Gophers drives. All the touchdown passes were to Johnson — the longest of the three was the first one: a 28-yard bobbling grab to cut the Michigan State lead to 23-13.

“I thought [Croft] came in and played very well,” Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio told reporters. “He made some things happen and we just made some plays, and he sort of got it going a little bit and got us on our heels.”

After three Croft touchdowns, the game was 30-27 Michigan State.The Gophers tried for an onside kick with 1:06 left, but Michigan State safely recovered it, and the Croft-led offense wasn’t able to come back out.

When Fleck was asked if Croft would be the starter now, he said, “I’ll decide that later on. … That’s a great question. That’s something I have to, I’ll talk to you about it later, I’m sure, in the week.”