Gophers’ defense overcomes, provides timely takeaways

A second half pick-six and fumble recovery propel Minnesota to victory.

Defensive back Jordan Howden makes a tackle at TCF Bank Stadium on Thursday, Aug. 29. Minnesota defeated South Dakota State 28-21.

Jack Rodgers

Defensive back Jordan Howden makes a tackle at TCF Bank Stadium on Thursday, Aug. 29. Minnesota defeated South Dakota State 28-21.

Nick Jungheim

In its season-opening 28-21 victory against South Dakota State, Minnesota headed into the locker room with a 13-7 lead at halftime. The Jackrabbits’ next three drives all ended with touchdowns. One of those touchdowns just so happened to be for the Gophers.

On the fourth play of the second half, South Dakota State’s redshirt freshman quarterback J’Bore Gibbs bobbled a low snap then threw a no-look interception right into the hands of redshirt senior Chris Williamson. With nothing but turf between him and the goal line, Williamson jogged to the end zone, giving Minnesota a 20-7 advantage.

Up to that point, the Gophers seemed to have control, maintaining possession for 19:50 of the opening 30 minutes. However, just as quick as Minnesota took a 13-point lead, the Jackrabbits seemed to seize the momentum.

“Chris’s interception was absolutely huge at a critical time,” said head coach P.J. Fleck. “We didn’t execute on the next drive [defensively], we let them drive 90 yards down and respond.”

After a 10-play touchdown drive, Minnesota’s offense could manage only a three-and-out before punting the ball away. Needing just 3:31, South Dakota State then drove the ball downfield again, adding seven more points to take its first lead of the game.

After another pair of punts from the offense, the Gophers found themselves still trailing when Gibbs fumbled the exchange on a read option and redshirt senior Winston DeLattiboudere pounced on the loose ball, giving Minnesota possession in Jackrabbits territory.

“I saw the ball and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got to go get that thing’,” DeLattiboudere said.  “After I got up and I didn’t want to give the ball to the ref, I was holding it, chinning it so hard.”

Suddenly, the offense which had remained stagnant in the second half sprang to life. The struggling offensive line began opening running lanes. Redshirt senior Rodney Smith rushed three times for 29 yards down to the 5-yard line. Two plays later, redshirt sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim punched it in for the decisive score.

After a return on the ensuing kickoff, South Dakota State stood just 53 yards from the Gophers’ end zone with 5:39 remaining. As they had most of the second half, the Jackrabbits moved the ball downfield, but Minnesota stiffened, ultimately coming up with one last big play.

With 1:20 left on the clock, redshirt sophomore Esezi Otomewo and senior Tai’yon Devers converged on Gibbs for a sack on fourth and 10, giving Minnesota the ball back once and for all.

“Our players found a way to go win the game,” Fleck said. “That’s what I’m focusing on, because they could have just laid down, they could have let that happen.”

Thanks to the defense, the Gophers avoided what could have been a painful upset. Williamson’s interception and DeLattiboudere’s fumble recovery helped atone for a night when the Jackrabbits out-gained Minnesota 367 yards to 308.

While the defense has room to improve, that disparity is the result of offensive struggles for Minnesota as well. Behind a shaky offensive line, the Gophers averaged just 3.1 yards per carry on Thursday. Redshirt sophomore Tanner Morgan only mustered 176 yards passing. Sophomore Rashod Bateman, who stole the show with a one-handed 42-yard touchdown reception, accounted for 132 of those yards.

“Rashod [Bateman] is one of the hardest-working guys on this team,” Morgan said. “He comes into work every day with an attitude to get better … he just made a lot of elite plays and showed everybody how explosive he is.”

Moving forward, Gophers will need to improve in all facets as the competition takes a step up next week. On Sept. 7, Minnesota travels to the west coast to play a Fresno State team that finished at No. 18 in last year’s final AP poll.

“All of them,” Fleck said simply, “We need to improve in all areas.”