The Gophers were a 14.5-point favorite over the FCS fourth-ranked South Dakota State Jackrabbits heading into the game, but the game ended up much closer than that as the Gophers shook off some rust against their cross-state foes.
"They have a chance to win the national championship in the FCS," head coach P.J. Fleck said about South Dakota State after the hard-fought game.
After both teams went scoreless in the first quarter, the Gophers jumped out to a 13-7 lead when quarterback Tanner Morgan hit a wide open Rashod Bateman who made a spectacular catch to reel in a 42-yard touchdown.
With the Jackrabbits focusing on limiting wide receiver Tyler Johnson, it opened up lots of room in the first half for Bateman. He finished the first half with five receptions for 132 yards receiving. However, he would be held without a catch for the rest of the night.
"He's a special player and you saw that tonight," Fleck said about Bateman’s performance.
At the start of the second half, the Gophers extended the lead to 12 when sophomore defensive back Chris Williamson intercepted an errant pass from SDSU quarterback J’Bore Gibbs, taking it 43 yards for a touchdown.
The Jackrabbits weren’t going to go down without a fight. They scored on back-to-back possessions to take the lead from Minnesota. Mikey Daniel ran the ball in the end zone from one yard out to close out a 92-yard drive. On the very next Jackrabbit possession, Gibbs capped off a seven-play, 57-yard drive with a 13-yard touchdown pass to tight end Zach Heins.
When it looked like the Jackrabbits were going to drive the field again, the Gophers caught a huge break as Gibbs fumbled a handoff and the ball fell right into the lap of Gophers redshirt senior defensive lineman Winston DeLattiboudere.
“I was like, 'oh my gosh, I got to go get that thing,'” DeLattiboudere said when he saw the ball fumbled. “After I got up, I didn’t want to give it to the ref. It was an extremely exciting moment.”
It wouldn’t take long after that for the Gophers to jump ahead. Sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim found a big hole to barrel through, finishing off the 34-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown run that gave Minnesota a 26-21 lead.
Fleck put the offense back in the game to go for the 2-point conversion, trying to take a seven-point lead. The Gophers drew up the “Philly Special” as wide receiver and former Minneapolis North quarterback Tyler Johnson took a handoff and made an easy throw to the end zone where Morgan was wide open to complete the two-point conversion, giving the Gophers a seven-point lead with a little over five minutes remaining.
“I think everybody in the country has that play in their back pocket," said Fleck about the play.
The Jackrabbits gave the Gophers a scare, driving all the way into Minnesota territory. With the crowd behind their defense on fourth-and-ten with a 1:20 remaining, Gibbs didn’t have enough time to throw as defensive linemen Esezi Otomewo and Tai’yon Devers combined for a sack to give the Gophers offense the ball back, all but ending the game as the Gophers escaped with a 28-21 victory.
“It was crazy, it was insane,” DeLattiboudere said about the noise of the crowd for the defense’s final drive. “Being able to feel that energy and then your teammates feel that energy is classic, it will never get old.”