Winfield saves the day in close victory over Fresno State

Antoine Winfield Jr. caught an interception in the end zone with 1:24 left in the game to secure the second Minnesota victory of the season.

Freshman Rashod Bateman keeps the ball away from Fresno State on Saturday, Sept. 8 at TCF Bank Stadium.

Jack Rodgers

Freshman Rashod Bateman keeps the ball away from Fresno State on Saturday, Sept. 8 at TCF Bank Stadium.

Jack Warrick

On special teams last week, on defense this week, defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. continues making himself known as a force for Minnesota.

The second game of the season was over when Winfield intercepted the ball in the end zone on Fresno State’s last play of the game: a floating pass that looked destined to tie the game.

“I thought I was beat at the point,” Winfield said. “And then once I saw where the ball was, and that I could go up and get it, I just went up and just made the play.”

The crowd at TCF Bank Stadium erupted in relief after Winfield made the leaping, twisting catch with 1:18 to play. Minnesota (2-0) took the hard-fought victory 21-14 Saturday night over Fresno State (1-1) after taking the knee in the victory formation. 

The Gophers were down 14-13 after a 45-yard touchdown pass from Fresno State quarterback Marcus McMaryion to wide receiver KeeSean Johnson with 8:20 left in the game.

But on the next drive, Gophers wide receiver Tyler Johnson kept play alive with a jumping catch for a first down. Later, quarterback Seth Green scored a 3-yard rushing touchdown with a two-point conversion to tight end Ko Kieft with 3:28 to play – making the score 21-14. This would turn out to be the final score.

“What a football team,” head coach P.J. Fleck said. “We knew this would be an incredible task, an incredible challenge for our players, our team, and our coaching staff, and it was.”

The Gophers got off to a rocky start Saturday night when starting running back Rodney Smith caught a pass for a first down, got tackled and dropped on the turf in pain.

After two assistants helped Smith off the field, the starting running back, who the Gophers have long-relied on to get their running game going, never returned and the Gophers were left with freshmen playmakers to pick up the pace. 

“Definitely it was just next man up making sure we’re all in it,” Green said. “Like coach said, it’s going to take everybody so with that we’re always expecting to be able to fulfill our job and that’s where that preparation comes in.”

Minnesota finished with 132 rushing yards, 87 of those from freshman running back Bryce Williams. Quarterback Zack Annexstad ended the night passing 16-26 with 175 passing yards. His favorite target was freshman receiver Rashod Bateman who caught five passes for 78 yards.

Green scored both touchdowns for the Gophers, running out of the wildcat formation again. The first touchdown was a one-yard rush with 2:46 left in the first quarter.

“We’re going to have to continue to find ways for [Green] to be able to be more involved in the offense, which we will,” Fleck said. “

The Gophers defense shut down the run game, they allowed 87 rushing yards and no touchdowns on the ground to the Bulldogs. Last week, Fresno State had seven rushing touchdowns in their monster offensive performance of 79 points.

Linebacker Blake Cashman and freshman defensive back Terell Smith were imperative to the Gophers’ defensive side. Cashman had six tackles in the first quarter, finishing with a team-leading 10 tackles. Smith had his first collegiate interception and was just behind Cashman with eight tackles on the night.

“In order for one guy to make plays you got to have 10 guys on the defense doing their job as well,” Cashman said. “So hats off to them and you know, doing my job, it was a lot of fun.”

The Bulldogs made it a close game with a 1-yard touchdown reception from tight end Jared Rice making it 10-7 at the end of the third quarter. But Gophers kicker Emmit Carpenter responded with a 50-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter. Carpenter hit a 53-yard field goal in the second quarter.

The Gophers will play Miami of Ohio (0-2) next Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at TCF Bank Stadium.