Chip Scoggins
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The Gophers found a way to jump-start their sputtering offense and it had nothing do with their quarterback change.

If anything, the Gophers won their first Big Ten game Saturday in spite of their quarterback and some head-scratching play calls.

They can thank third-string running back Kobe McCrary for saving their bacon. The 240-pound sledgehammer rumbled for 153 yards and one touchdown on a career-high 24 carries in relief of injured Shannon Brooks.

McCrary served as a one-man wrecking crew and the Gophers defense suffocated the youngest offense in college football to give coach P.J. Fleck his first Big Ten win, 24-17 over Illinois on homecoming at TCF Bank Stadium.

A change at running back had far greater impact than Fleck’s decision to give Demry Croft his first career start at quarterback.

“Kobe put people on his shoulders, literally,” Fleck said.

McCrary broke a tie score in the fourth quarter after offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca came to his senses and didn’t ask Croft to throw the ball.

Croft had a nightmarish debut as the starter after replacing Conor Rhoda. The struggles at that position did not disappear. Croft threw two second-half interceptions, completed only five passes and finished with 47 yards passing.

Fleck’s top priority is to recruit and develop a legitimate Big Ten quarterback. Deficiencies at that position have haunted the program and impeded its ascent.

Both Croft and Rhoda have been largely ineffective, putting Fleck’s staff in a predicament. The Gophers need more production from their quarterback to beat good (or even average) teams, but a run-centric game plan can suffice against weaker foes.

They had to sweat out some anxious moments before proving that theory true again.

Croft threw interceptions on back-to-back possessions in the second half, both the result of poor decisions.

His first mishap came with his team leading 10-7. On third-and-6 from the Illinois 32, Croft fled the pocket and heaved a pass up for grabs into double coverage while being hit.

On the next possession, Ciarrocca strangely started by calling two consecutive pass plays.

On first down, Croft threw the ball away, earning an intentional-grounding penalty. On second down, he threw into tight coverage along the sideline and was intercepted.

Two downs, two passes, zero runs. It made no sense.

The Illini could not stop the run. McCrary flattened their defense like a road grader. Combined, McCrary and Rodney Smith rushed for 256 yards and averaged 6 yards per carry.

Why throw in that situation, with the game on the line?

“Because I believe in my quarterbacks,” Fleck said. “Hindsight is 20/20. If he completes two passes, we’re not talking about that. But we don’t.”

It felt like a classic case of a play-caller overthinking the situation. Another example came on the first drive of the second half.

McCrary carried the ball on seven consecutive plays for 63 yards, looking like a bowling ball knocking over pins. His final run in that flurry took the ball to the 1-yard line for a first down.

Next play: Croft keeper for a 1-yard loss.

Why not pound McCrary up the gut three times in a row, if needed? McCrary got stuffed on second down and then Croft threw a risky pass on third down for an incompletion, forcing the Gophers to settle for a maddening field goal.

With the score tied, Ciarrocca shrunk his playbook by eliminating pass plays on a critical drive. He wisely called 12 consecutive runs, which resulted in a 75-yard touchdown drive.

“Kind of got pretty boring,” Fleck joked, “but that’s what it took.”

Boring but necessary. And smart.

Fleck indicated that even if tag-team partners Smith and Brooks are healthy, McCrary will play more moving forward.

“He’s earned the right,” Fleck said. “You have a pair and spare, but I’m going to continue to put the best players out there.”

Former Gophers coach Glen Mason coined the phrase “pair and a spare” when describing his ideal running back rotation. McCrary has removed the spare label. He seems quite capable of handling the leading role.

Chip Scoggins • chip.scoggins@startribune.com