When P.J. Fleck and his Gophers coaching staff drew up their game plan for Saturday night’s contest at Oregon State, front and center was feeding the Beavers a large dose of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, with the hope that that running game would wear down the opponent and control the clock.
And the game went just the way Minnesota’s staff wanted on a rainy night at Reser Stadium, with the Gophers basically grinding the Beavers into submission in the second half of a 48-14 rout.
But an interesting development happened during the march to march all over the field. Fleck and the Gophers just might have found their No. 1 quarterback.
Senior Conor Rhoda, who’s been in a job share with sophomore Demry Croft, asserted himself effectively and efficiently, completing seven of eight passes for 158 yards and a touchdown — and an eye-popping 22.6 yards per completion.
“We didn’t ask him to do a ton in the pass game, but we needed to run the football,’’ Fleck said. “He executed well. He led better than he ever has.’’
Fleck would not commit to saying Rhoda won the No. 1 job over Croft. But a second-quarter sequence displayed the separation that Rhoda has reached in the QB battle.
After Oregon State had trimmed Minnesota’s lead to 17-7 with a 15-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, Fleck sent out Croft for his second possession of the game. On second-and-10 from the Gophers 26-yard line, Croft tried to run but fumbled under rainy conditions. Instead of falling on the ball, he tried to pick it up. The Beavers recovered, and three plays later trimmed Minnesota’s lead to 17-14.
Momentum had swung to Oregon State’s favor. Rhoda quickly swung it back.
On the ensuing possession, Rhoda calmly drove the Gophers down the field. He hooked up with Tyler Johnson for a 22-yard gain to the OSU 49 on third-and-2. He then found Demetrius Douglas for a 7-yarder. With the defense respecting the passing threat, Brooks had a 17-yard gainer to the OSU 28 and Smith immediately followed with a 15-yarder to the 13. After a 2-yard loss and personal foul penalty pushed the Gophers back to the 31, Rhoda’s third-and-28 pass to Brooks was incomplete. But Emmit Carpenter nailed a 49-yard field goal for a 20-14 lead.
Order restored, thanks in large part to a cool QB.
From there, the Gophers turned the game over to their running attack and stout second-half defense. They finished with 58 rushes and those efficient Rhoda passes.
“He was managing really well, going up to his offensive linemen, communicating very well,’’ Fleck said. “At the end, [he was] draining the clock, milking the clock properly, keeping everybody calm.’’
Rhoda’s improvement as a leader has caught his teammates’ attention.
“Conor is a lot more comfortable now,’’ said Johnson, who caught Rhoda’s first pass, a post that the sophomore turned into a 67-yard scoring play in the first quarter. “Each week, he’s getting more and more comfortable with his ideas and what he’s going to do out there.’’
Rhoda knew he’d have to ramp up his leadership role, too.
“That was a big focal point that coach talked to Demry and I,’’ said Rhoda, a former Cretin-Derham Hall standout. “… Once we got into game prep, I was, ‘How can I take over this team the best that I can and help this team win.’ I was really happy to see it go the way it went tonight.’’
As for Croft, his failure to fall on the fumble was one of the reasons Fleck kept him on the sideline until late in the fourth quarter. But when he got in, Croft sprinted 64 yards for a touchdown with 2:53 left.
“We put him back in at the end of the game and he takes off and runs,’’ Fleck said. “He responded perfectly. He probably said, ‘Here, coach. Take that.’ Perfect. The lesson was learned.’’
Randy Johnson covers
for the Star Tribune.