Minnesota routs Middle Tennessee after slow start

Minnesota scored 31 unanswered points to get the win and improve to 3-0 on the season.

Wide receiver Demetrius Douglas runs with the ball against Middle Tennessee on Saturday, Sept. 16 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Courtney Deutz

Wide receiver Demetrius Douglas runs with the ball against Middle Tennessee on Saturday, Sept. 16 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Jack Warrick

The Gophers started slow Saturday, and with 10:53 left in the first half, Middle Tennessee had tied the game at 3-3.

Then, Minnesota’s offense clicked. 

The Gophers responded to the Blue Raiders with 31 unanswered points, 221 rushing yards and no turnovers in the game, leading to a 34-3 victory at TCF Bank Stadium. With the win, Minnesota is now 3-0 on the season heading into conference play.

“I’m disappointed in a lot of aspects in terms of the first half on offense,” said Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck. “I thought we could move the ball and we proved that in the first drive, but then we’d stub ourselves in the foot.”

Minnesota’s defense held Middle Tennessee to just three points and 46 rushing yards in the game. The Gophers also forced two interceptions — including one returned for a touchdown by defensive back Jacob Huff to give the team a 20-3 lead at the end of the second half.

“We could be up by 20, we could be down by 20,” Gophers quarterback Conor Rhoda said. “When you’ve got a free seven points like that it’s a huge lift, just less we need to do as an offense.”

Middle Tennessee struggled without their starting quarterback — Brent Stockstill. Quarterbacks John Urzua and Kyle Banks filled in for Stockstill, combining for 184 yards. Urzua threw two interceptions and neither player threw a touchdown pass.

“[Urzua] coming in got put in a tough position,” Fleck said. “He played really well for the position he was put in.”

Minnesota’s second interception came from linebacker Thomas Barber. Antonio Shenault hit a Blue Raiders’ wide receiver, jarring the ball loose. Barber reacted to the loose ball and made the interception as he went to the ground.

“I didn’t make an excellent play on the ball,” Barber said. “It was just up in the air and I just happened to be there to catch it.”

Co-starting running back Shannon Brooks did not touch the field in the game. The other starter, Rodney Smith, broke 2,000 career rushing yards before getting injured in the final play of the first half.

After being second on the depth chart behind Smith and Brooks the past year and two games, Kobe McCrary stepped up when Smith and Brooks were injured on Saturday.

McCrary had three touchdowns and 107 total rushing yards, most of which came in the second half after Smith’s injury. McCrary had three touchdowns all of last season.

Minnesota’s defense hasn’t conceded points in the second half all season. Middle Tennesse’s three points were the fewest Minnesota has allowed in the history of TCF Bank Stadium.

The Blue Raiders biggest receiving threat, Richie James, was injured during the game, too. James came in as the team’s leading receiver, and left the game with negative 2 yards receiving.Patrick Smith was the team’s leading receiver Saturday with 46 yards.

Gophers tight end Nate Wozniak broke away for a 50-yard reception, the longest of his career, early in fourth quarter. The reception set McCrary up for his third touchdown and put the Gophers ahead 34-3.

Kicker Emmit Carpenter made both of his field goal attempts Saturday, including a 47-yard kick to increase Minnesota’s lead to 6-3 midway through the second quarter.

The Gophers have their bye week next, and will play Maryland on Sept. 30 to open conference play.

“Our players have to continue to do all the right things and be smart and continue to earn things throughout the year,” Fleck said.