To some fans, a game at home against the Georgia Southern Eagles Saturday sounded like an easy win. The Gophers were a 17-point favorite before the game began. After the fourth quarter ended, however, the Gophers were battered and bruised, but most importantly they came out with a close win.
The game was much the same as the Gophers' first two of the season: filled with mistakes, yet resulting in a win. After giving up an interception, another interception for a touchdown, a blocked field goal for a touchdown, missed tackles and failing on a fourth down attempt in their own territory, the Gophers had to overcome their own sloppy play once again.
"I did not coach very well," head coach P.J. Fleck said after the game. "I take responsibility for a lot of it."
The team also lost running back Mohamed Ibrahim before the game and Rodney Smith during the game. This forced Bryce Williams and Cam Wiley to take valuable snaps late in the game.
"That's what that 'next-man-up' mentality always is," Fleck said about the injuries. "They found a way to win again."
On the bright side for the Gophers, star wide receiver Tyler Johnson finally got going. After being double or triple covered for most of the first two games, Georgia Southern decided to only single cover Johnson.
"This defense gives you a one-on-one match-up — let's go," quarterback Tanner Morgan said. "Tyler Johnson is Tyler Johnson, and he's a lot better than he was last year and he proved that tonight. Tyler's the guy."
The star receiver took advantage of the lack of attention by scoring two touchdowns in the first half and another one in the second half when it mattered most. Johnson finished the game with 10 receptions for 140 yards and three touchdowns.
With 6:05 left in the game, kicker Michael Lantz came in to attempt a field goal to give Minnesota a two-possession lead. The kick was blocked, and Eagles cornerback Monquavion Brinson took the ball 77 yards for a touchdown. They failed on the two-point conversion and the Gophers remained ahead 28-26.
In their next possession, the Gophers appeared to be in control as they drove close to Georgia Southern territory. They were running time off the clock and seemed to be in the position to possibly even score points. On third-and-long, Morgan was hit as he was throwing and fumbled the ball, which was picked up by Georgia Southern linebacker Rashad Byrd and returned 44 yards for the score. After the failed two-point conversion, the Gophers were down 32-28.
With no timeouts for their final possession, the Gophers offense was able to make its way into Georgia Southern territory. With 55 seconds remaining, Morgan found Rashod Bateman, who after some nifty moves, had a 25-yard gain down to the 11-yard line. After a 10-yard pass to Johnson, the Gophers had first-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
With 13 seconds left in the game, Morgan let his star make a play. He tossed up a jump ball in the back corner of the end zone, and somehow Johnson ended up coming down with it for a touchdown. The Gophers went 75 yards in 3 minutes and 34 seconds to come back and take the lead, 35-32.
"Big time moments, we got to go to our big time play maker," Fleck said about the game-winning catch.
In the final moments, the Gophers defense stepped up like they had all game when the offense struggled. In the second half, Georgia Southern — a triple-option team that focuses almost exclusively on running — accrued 5 rushing yards.
"I think second half we came out on fire," linebacker Thomas Barber said after the game.
With Georgia Southern only needing a field goal, they failed to complete a hook-and-ladder play on the last play of the game and that would be the end.
"It's a lot of courage, a lot of character about this team," Morgan said after the game about pulling out the win. "Finding a way to win and through our culture, through our 'Row the Boat' mantra, we were able to do that."
The Gophers, for the third week in a row, persevere to remain undefeated heading into their bye week.
"We found a way to win when everyone thought we wouldn't," Fleck said.