How Minnesota overcame the Beavers — and 3 player ejections — for its first non-conference win against a Power 5 team since 2012
A muffed punt.
A head coach up seven going for two — at home — with 1:27 left to play.
A 45-yard field goal doinked in off the left upright.
And yet of all the bizarro anomalies to come out of Minnesota’s wacky 30-23 season-opening victory over Oregon State, the single wackiest might have been the fact that three different Golden Gophers defenders were ejected for targeting. Three.
“We never had one — or maybe one the last four years,” Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys told the Big Ten Network after his Gophers won their first non-conference matchup against a fellow Power 5 opponent since 2012.
Consider this: In Week 1 of 2015, all FBS schools accounted for six targeting calls. The Gophers managed half that total in one night, all by themselves.
The spate of ejections and Claeys’ decision to go for two at the end of the contest (it failed) took a bit of a shine off an otherwise solid night defensively (four sacks) and on the ground. Tailback Rodney Smith, subbing for the injured Shannon Brooks, ran for 125 yards on 25 carries and two scores, while quarterback Mitch Leidner provided the read-option complement with 76 on 13 attempts.
And although it took a while for the senior signal-caller to get on the same page with his receivers — and with center Tyler Moore — the Minnesota native led the hosts on a pivotal 12-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to open the fourth quarter, one that put the Gophers up 24-23 with 14:07 left in the contest.
As chess matches go, the Beavers ultimately found themselves a half-step behind after spending much of the first half a move ahead. The Gophers didn’t record a first down until 4:34 was left in the first quarter. Over the first 16 minutes, the hosts managed three false starts to just one first down.
Moore was flagged for a false start in the first quarter and snapped the ball about 45 feet over Leidner’s 6-foot-4 frame in the second.
And the center’s second shotgun snafu hurt even more. At the Minnesota 7 with 5:37 left in the third period, Leidner was forced to chase the ball and then bat it out of the back of the end zone, a safety that cut the hosts’ lead to 17-16. The Gophers were flagged for four false starts over the first 35 minutes and change and would finish the evening with eight penalties.
For a win with warts, it had stars, too: True freshman defensive end Tai’yon Devers, a 6-foot-4 battering ram out of Pompano Beach, Fla., was one of Minnesota’s early lights, setting up the Gophers’ first two scores with sack-strips of Oregon State quarterback Darell Garretson.
His second takedown of Garretson, with 9:02 left in the first half, gifted the Gophs the ball at the Oregon State 36. With 14:54 to go in the period, Devers had broken free and slung Garretson to the ground, forcing a fumble that was recovered by the hosts at the Beavers 28.
Garretson wouldn’t have the last word — but in the fourth quarter, the officials did. On a third-and-11 dropback at the Oregon State 7, Devers appeared to lead with his helmet on a blow just after the Beavers quarterback released a 12-yard completion to Seth Collins.
Midway through the third quarter, junior linebacker Jonathan Celestin was ejected for targeting after leading with his helmet on a sliding Garretson. Starting middle linebacker Cody Poock had been sent to the showers with 9:26 left in the first.
“I’m all for the rule and for the game of football,” Claeys told the Big Ten Network. “We’ve just got to lower our targets a little bit.”
And if they don’t clean some things up — several things, actually — the pundits who touted Minnesota as a sleeper pick to win the Big Ten West might have to lower their expectations, too.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler