We’ve seen the potential. Three fourth-quarter touchdown passes against Michigan State. A promising first quarter against Michigan. A 64-yard touchdown dash against Oregon State.
And we’ve seen the struggles. Five-for-15 with two interceptions against Illinois. Nine-for-29 against Iowa. A 38.2 completion percentage over the past four games.
For Demry Croft, and his Gophers, the season hasn’t played out as hoped. The team is treading water at 4-5, having lost five of six Big Ten games. And Croft, given the chance to start, has failed to seize control of the quarterback job.
But beginning Saturday against Nebraska (4-5, 3-3 Big Ten) at TCF Bank Stadium and continuing through season’s end, Croft will try to show what we have yet to see: distinct development, clear improvement, resolve.
“We’re going to respond in a good way this week,” the sophomore said. “After you take something like that this past weekend, you come back a little hungry. And I feel we’ll be hungry this week.”
Last week in the 33-10 loss at Michigan, Croft showed promise early. His first pass went for 25 yards to Phillip Howard. His second was an 8-yard connection to Rodney Smith. After a third-down incompletion ended the Gophers’ first drive, Croft led a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown march by hooking up with Howard for a 16-yard gain, converting a third-and-6 with an 8-yard run and rushing for 12 yards to the Michigan 17. Suddenly, the Gophers and Wolverines were tied 7-7, and Croft had completed three of his first four passes for 49 yards.
“He looked very confident out there, very comfortable in what he was seeing against Michigan, which is a great sign,” offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said.
That success against Michigan was short-lived, however, because the Wolverines adjusted and started to dominate the line of scrimmage. They sacked Croft five times, including a strip sack by Khaleke Hudson with the Gophers at Michigan’s 42 midway through the third quarter. After that 3-for-4 start, Croft was 2-for-8 the rest of the game as his receivers got little separation from Michigan speedy and physical defenders.
Though it hasn’t shown up often enough in the win column — Croft is 1-2 in three starts since taking over for senior Conor Rhoda — coach P.J. Fleck sees improvement.
“I don’t think it’s the big step that you sit there and say, ‘Oh, he’s arrived,’ ” Fleck said, “but there are little things here and there, you say, ‘OK, he’s growing, he’s getting it.’ ”
When Croft took over for Rhoda in the second quarter against Michigan State on Oct. 14, he quickly gave the offense a lift. His three fourth-quarter TD passes to Tyler Johnson rallied the Gophers in the 30-27 loss and raised hopes that he could be the answer the team was seeking.
The next week in his first start, Croft took a step back, passing for only 47 yards and throwing two second-half interceptions in a 24-17 win over Illinois. After the second interception, the Gophers ran the ball on all their remaining plays.
“The Illinois game was a little bit of a fast-forward for him,” Ciarrocca said. “The next week [at Iowa], it looked like the game was a little slower for him. Then in the Michigan game, I thought he looked even more comfortable out there. I’m pleased with his steady improvement, and that’s part of the makings of a quarterback.”
One area in which Croft has drawn his teammates’ attention is leadership. Fleck wants his quarterbacks to be assertive, confident decisionmakers, and that’s starting to show in Croft.
“He’s growing as a vocal leader, taking over the offense and letting it be known that he’s the leader of the offense when he’s out there,” Smith said. “His confidence level, you see it growing each week.”
Said Croft: “I’m taking more command of the offense. I can feel it a bit.”
But it remains to be seen whether his incremental improvement will be enough for Croft to remain the starter. Fleck said Rhoda still could play by the end of the season. “We’ll just continue to put whoever out there gives us the best chance to win,” the coach said.
Next year, Croft’s competition for the job would include Tanner Morgan, a promising freshman who is redshirting this year, and Seth Green, the former East Ridge standout who will be a sophomore in 2018. Fleck also wants to bring in at least one quarterback in the 2018 recruiting class.
“Competition breeds a lot of things,” Fleck said, “and [you need] that competitive drive in you to be always on your toes, always be sharp.’’