Rashod Bateman #13 of the Minnesota Gophers carries the ball against the South Dakota State Jackrabbits during the second quarter of the game on August 29, 2019 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS (FOX 9) - PJ Fleck talks constantly about failing, responding and growing in life and within a football game.
His Gophers had to do plenty of it Thursday night in a 28-21 win over South Dakota State at TCF Bank Stadium. The Jackrabbits entered the season ranked No. 4 in FCS, and are considered contenders for a national title. A loss would’ve sent more than 49,000 fans home stunned after the Gophers brought back 17 starters from a squad that beat Wisconsin and won the Quick Lane Bowl to end last season.
Fleck was "very happy to be 1-0" after his team escaped with the victory. Winston DeLattiboudere recovered a Jackrabbits’ fumble late in the fourth quarter. Six plays after, Mohamed Ibrahim’s touchdown from 1-yard out put the Gophers ahead 26-21 with 5:39 left. A nifty two-point conversion that featured a pass from Tyler Johnson to Tanner Morgan gave Minnesota its final cushion.
The Gophers sealed the win when Esezi Otomewu and Taiyon Devers combined to sack Jackrabbits’ quarterback J’Bore Gibbs. It was Minnesota's only sack of the night.
It wasn’t always pretty, but a win is a win.
“There’s hard wins, there are no bad wins. That is my message to the football team today, there are no bad wins. That’s a really good football team out there. People are going to say ‘they’re FCS.’ They have a chance to win the national championship in FCS,” Fleck said. “Sometimes you don’t play your best, you get tested, backs against the wall, you find a way to win. That’s why I’m proud of this team. We were tested tonight, and our players passed the test. Whether we won by 40 or 20 or seven, we won. We found a way to win.”
The Gophers’ scoring started with a long drive that many thought might ultimately wear the Jackrabbits’ defense out later in the game. Seth Green scored in a goal-line situation to cap an 18-play, 91-yard drive that took more than 10 minutes off the clock and gave Minnesota the early 7-0 lead.
South Dakota State answered with its own scoring drive before Rashod Bateman provided the highlight of the first half. His one-handed 42-yard touchdown catch from Tanner Morgan with 49 seconds left gave the Gophers a 13-7 lead at the half.
Bateman said after the game he dedicated the night to his uncle, who passed away two weeks ago. He left the Gophers briefly during fall camp to be with family and attend a memorial service.
“Tonight, just go out there and play for him. It was pretty special. I know he’s always there with me, so I just gotta continue to ball for him,” Bateman said.
He finished the first half with five catches for 134 yards and the score. The Gophers managed 234 total yards in the first half. Fleck said the mental health resources the administration provides to athletes is the reason players like Bateman can bounce back like he did Thursday.
“Because that young man can make a catch like that and play like he did today, losing the biggest male figure in his life two weeks ago and play like that, that’s what it’s all about,” Fleck said.
The Gophers thought they might have delivered a dagger to the Jackrabbits early in the third quarter. They got pressure on Gibbs, and he threw an interception to Chris Williamson. He took it 43 yards for a touchdown, and the Gophers led 20-7.
South Dakota State answered with 14 straight points and took a 21-20 lead into the fourth quarter after Gibbs hit Zach Heins for a 13-yard touchdown. In his first collegiate start, Gibbs finished 13-of-26 for 193 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
The Jackrabbits also ran for 174 yards, and more than five yards per carry.
But midway through the fourth quarter, Gibbs and his center fumbled away an exchange. South Dakota State fumbled away the game, and DeLattiboudere was ready to pounce when it mattered the most. He recovered the fumble, and the Gophers had life.
His eyes lit up when he saw the football on the ground.
“I was like ‘Oh my God I gotta go get that thing.’ After I got up, I didn’t even want to give it to the ref. I was like the ball is the program,” DeLattiboudere said.
Fleck had one word to describe the fumble recovery: Joy.
‘We’re going to have to learn how to play and win close games. Our players found a way to go win the game, and that’s what I’m focusing on. They found a relentless way to go get the football at the very end,” Fleck said.
Senior Rodney Smith had 29 of his 94 yards over the next three carries, and Ibrahim finished off capitalizing on the turnover with a 1-yard touchdown run. The Gophers could exhale. There wouldn’t be a stunning upset to start a season with high expectations.
There’s plenty of room for improvement. The Gophers ran for just 2.8 yards per carry. Morgan finished 13-of-18 for 176 yards, one touchdown, an early interception and was sacked twice. But getting the win is what matters to them the most.
“We’re going to be a better football team because of tonight,” Morgan said.
It wasn’t pretty, but the Gophers are 1-0 heading to Fresno State next Saturday.
“There are no bad wins. That’s for all you to decide. Not inside my team walls. Not how we talk to our team. Do we have a lot to learn? Yes. Was this a very hard game? Yes. Could we have lost this game? Yes. But they didn’t. They won the game,” Fleck said.
- Kamal Martin did not dress for Thursday night’s opener. Fleck said after the game it was an extension of his suspension from the Quick Lane Bowl, and expects him to play next Saturday at Fresno State.
- Chris Autman-Bell, Carter Coughlin and Chris Williamson all suffered injuries during the game. Autman-Bell’s injury is not believed to be serious, and Coughlin was on the field at the end of the game.
- The announced attendance was 49,112, the largest crowd at TCF Bank Stadium since the Gophers hosted Iowa in 2016.
- Tyler Johnson finished with three catches for 28 yards, and surpassed 2,000 yards for his career during the game. Rodney Smith also surpassed 3,000 career rushing yards.