Zack Annexstad became the second ever true freshman walk-on quarterback to start the season opener for a FBS team on Thursday night.
After a shaky start that included a fumble in the red zone and just 30 receiving yards in the first quarter, Annexstad finished the game with a convincing victory. The Gophers (1-0) beat the New Mexico State Aggies (0-2) 48-10 with help from Annexstad's 220 passing yards, going 16-33 with two touchdowns and no interception. Both of Annexstad's touchdowns were to veteran wide receiver Tyler Johnson.
"[Annexstad] played a great game today, especially for it being his first game as a college player," Johnson said. "I've just seen a lot of confidence in him. Once he fumbled he just knew that he had to go back out there just let it go and keep playing."
Annexstad and his offense scored 28 points in the second quarter in response to the lackluster first quarter to give the Gophers a 35-10 lead heading into the locker room at half time.
In the first drive of the second quarter, the offense went for 75 yards on seven plays, highlighted by a 25-yard reception to freshman wide receiver Rashod Bateman. To finish the drive off, former quarterback turned tight end and wide receiver Seth Green lined up at quarterback and ran the wildcat offense outside for a nine-yard touchdown, Green's first.
Green, who was a backup quarterback last year, scored on consecutive drives in the second quarter after Annexstad drove the offense into the Aggies' red zone.
"Big game at TCF [Bank Stadium], home opener, all that stuff, I was really proud of [Annexstad] how he just was himself, kept calm cool and collected and led the offense," Green said.
Annexstad scored his first collegiate touchdown on Minnesota's third drive of the game, a seven-yard pass to Johnson. Gophers linebacker Thomas Barber caught an interception at the 50-yard line to set up Annexstad.
"It was a lot of smiles from him," Johnson said about Annexstad after the game. "I went up to him and just told him like, 'keep balling it's only the start,' and I'm proud of him, proud of the work he's put in."
Annexstad completed multiple passes for 10 or more yards, the longest of them a 33-yard reception by Johnson for the final touchdown of the first half.
The first quarter saw two three-and-out offensive drives and the first big mistake of Annexstad's career: a fumble on the Minnesota 12-yard line that would lead to an Aggies touchdown. New Mexico State then kicked a field goal in the first minute of the second quarter to briefly take the lead before Annexstad's offense finished the second quarter by scoring touchdowns on each of its four drives.
"He's got to fail to grow," head coach P.J. Fleck said. "I'm sure he didn't want to fumble that football but it's part of the maturation process."
Annexstad beat out redshirt freshman quarterback Tanner Morgan for the starting spot during summer training camp, but Fleck said there may be times in the season when Morgan sees game time as well.
Morgan played the last two drives with 5:43 to play, when the Gophers were leading 41-10. His offense scored on three plays due to a Mohamed Ibrahim rush of 74 yards and a one-yard rushing touchdown from freshman running back Bryce Williams. Morgan completed one pass for seven yards.
The only other FBS quarterback to start as a true freshman walk-on was future Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield at Texas Tech, before he transferred to Oklahoma. When Mayfield played his first game in 2013, he threw 43-60 for 413 yards, 4 touchdowns and no interceptions.
New Mexico State allowed Wyoming 137 receiving yards less than a week ago when the team played its season opener on Saturday.
"We know we failed a lot tonight and we have a lot of things to clean up," Gophers running back Rodney Smith said. "But I think teams have the biggest growth from game one to game two, ironing out those mistakes and the details."