Football isn't a beauty pageant, and I can tell you that Tracy Claeys and Minnesota will take a win whether it's pretty, or ugly.
Last night's opening victory over Oregon State wasn't exactly how I envisioned this game going, but for as much as things went wrong last night with three ejections, a safety, muffed punt and six pre-snap penalties, Minnesota found a way to win the game and truthfully, that's all that matters.
Time to talk about the positives, pivotal coaching decisions and places to improve heading into Indiana State next week.
Minnesota was in the top half of FBS teams last season in converting red zone opportunities into points last season, the issue was Minnesota only punched it into the end zone 53% of the time in 2015 (19 of 36), but the Gophers are off to a great start in 2016.
The Golden Gophers had four red zone chances last night and were able to convert each chance into touchdowns, which is a huge reason Minnesota was able to come away victorious last night. Getting seven instead of three time after time, is going to win you a lot of ball games.
Minnesota was also 3 for 3 on third down in the red zone, which is a stark change from last season, so if Minnesota's able to continue to be efficient in turning red zone opportunities into touchdowns like they were last night, you're going to see them win more and more close games.
Getting pressure on the quarterback
Last night was also a step in the right direction for this Gopher defense for impact plays and getting to the quarterback.
The Golden Gophers defense last night had nine tackles for loss, seven passes broken up, four sacks and two forced fumbles and both were recovered by Minnesota.
I'm well-aware that Oregon State won only two games last season, but this 2016 Beaver team is improved, especially on the offensive side of the ball, and Gophers were able to make some plays on defense when they needed it most.
There were a few times where Beavers quarterback Darrel Garretson appeared to feel comfortable in the pocket for longer than he should, but by the time it was more than a few plays, Minnesota would get on him.
True freshman Tai'yon Devers was able to create havoc forcing two strip sack turnovers in his collegiate debut. Defensive tackles Steven Richardson and Andrew Stelter both had a sack and tackle for loss, plus the Gophers secondary was able to provide some run support on the edge with three tackles for loss.
Minnesota's secondary also had six passes broken up last night, with the next step being to turn those into interceptions, but it's a great start.
I seriously can't stress you everyone enough how good Ryan Santoso was last night as a collegiate punter in his first career start. Santoso punted the ball seven times last night and here were the results.
Five were on/inside the 20 yard line, and the other two were 50+ yard punts, including a 62 yard bomb after the Gophers took a safety.
I'll remind you again that this is why Santoso was moved from field goal kicker to punter.
His leg is such a weapon that Minnesota was able to continuously flip the field position game because of his powerful right leg.
The average field position for Minnesota was on their own 38, while Oregon State's was on their own 25.
Great start for Santoso.
125 yards and two rushing touchdowns with a five yards per carry average is going to do wonders for a running game that's looking to improve from a disappointing 2015 season. Smith routinely would get what was provided for him, but also made something out of nothing, breathing life into this Gopher offense in key moments.
Smith took a handoff in the fourth quarter and turned what should have been a tackle for loss, and bounced it into a 27 yard gain. You'll also remember his touchdown run in the fourth quarter where Rodney hit two Oregon State defenders with the O button (spin move) and walked in for the easy score.
Claeys mentioned to the media after the game that he's planning on going with a "hot hand" approach once Shannon Brooks is back, and Minnesota's got two very good young running backs here for the remainder of the 2016 season.
Here's how Smith described his performance last night.
“Yeah, it was definitely a bang. A good way to start the season. But like I said, I’m somewhat disappointed in myself. I feel like I should’ve had some longer runs which would’ve equaled more yards and then on the one I tripped would’ve been a touchdown. So, moving forward I’m definitely going to work on those things.”
Tai'yon Devers sure knows how to make a great first impression.
Two sacks and and two forced fumbles coming off the edge in your first collegiate game is not a bad way to burst onto the scene in your first game as a Big Ten player.
Devers did end up getting an ejection from the game on a hit to the head of the quarterback and that has to be cleaned up, but for a team like Minnesota that's struggled to rush the passer in a base 4-3, Devers performance on Thursday night has to give you hope.
There's no doubt in my mind that Leidner's play on Thursday night was an improvement from what you saw from last season.
His stat line of 13/26 for 130 yards through the air wasn't exactly indicative of what his night was, as I saw improvement in his decision making, and his deep ball was much better. Three deep shots were taken (20+ yard throws) and one drew pass interference, another to Rashad Still should have been pass interference, and a fade to Brian Smith on the sideline was put to where Smith would have a chance at the ball.
Leidner did work on the ground as well rushing for 76 yards and two scores, passing Rickey Foggie all-time in Minnesota's record books to become the career leading for rushing scores from a quarterback.
Is there room for improvement? Absolutely.
Mitch has to continue to work on reads and accuracy in the short to intermediate game, but for the most part, last night was step in the right direction for Leidner.
Minnesota's run defense last season was in the bottom half of the Big Ten last season giving up 181.8 yards per game in Big Ten play, and Minnesota showed improvement there last night.
The Gophers defense gave up 116 yards on the ground on 34 attempts, which comes out to 3.41 yards per carry. Take out a 40 yard run, which Oregon State's longest rush last night, and Minnesota's run defense is sitting at 76 rushing yards on 33 carries, which is 2.3 yards per carry.
The jury is still out on the Gophers run defense, but if last night was any indication, Minnesota will be improved there this fall.
Pivotal coaching decisions
Minnesota's last possession of the first half
Oregon State just tied the game with 64 seconds left in the first half and decided on the ensuing kickoff that they were going to squib the ball, instead of kicking it deep, which Colton Beebe returned said squib to the Minnesota 37.
Not entirely sure what the thought process was there knowing that Minnesota had all three timeouts left and the Beavers more than likely gave Minnesota at least 10 yards of field position by squibing the ball there.
Same drive, Minnesota has it 3rd and 10 at the OSU 32, and Rodney Smith takes the hand-off for a four yard gain setting up fourth down at the OSU 28. Minnesota's flagged for an illegal motion penalty that if the Beavers would accept, would have Minnesota looking at a 3rd and 15 on the OSU 37, which if Minnesota wouldn't have gained yardage, would set up a 54 yard field goal attempt.
Instead of accepting, Oregon State declines the penalty, Minnesota runs the clock down and Emmit Carpenter puts one through the uprights from 45 to give Minnesota the lead.
Do not understand the logic from Oregon State there.
Tracy Claeys going for two late in the 4th
Before I say anything more, this isn't the first time that Tracy Claeys has gone for two in this type of situation.
You'll remember the Illinois game last season where Shannon Brooks breaks off a 75 yard score to put Minnesota up 30-23 late in the fourth quarter. Instead of kicking the extra point, Claeys decided to go for two, and the all but guaranteed win, and got it with a Leidner two point conversion.
Fast forward to last night, where once again, Minnesota goes up seven and Claeys goes for the jugular. Minnesota doesn't convert and it seems like fans and local / national media go into a tizzy about the call.
Gophers were still in the 90th percentile in terms of winning percentage, and if they would have converted the game would have been over. Sure, you can speculate about the play call there, but I'm all in favor of not playing risk averse if you believe in both your offense and defense in that type of situation.
Places to Improve
Gophers had six pre-snap penalties last night, and Tracy Claeys and the rest of this Gopher coaching staff will tell you that's unacceptable, and I agree. I get the first game jitters, but six penalties of the pre-snap variety is far too many and something that I believe will be cleaned up here going forward in the non-conference.
Personal Fouls / Targeting
I've never witnessed a football game with more targeting calls and ejections than last night's Gopher game. I understand the rule and what it's intended purposes are for protecting players, but some collisions on the football field are unavoidable. I'm on board with the ejections of Cody Poock and Tai'yon Devers last night, but the Jonathan Celestin call was one I'm not a fan of. Celestin started his tackle attempt at the waist of the Beavers quarterback before his slide, and Garretson just slide into Celestin. There was no malintent there, but it's something that Minnesota will have to adjust to here going forward.
This is what Claeys explained to the media after the game about those calls.
“The rule hasn’t changed any and we haven’t had a targeting penalty in the last four years. It’s something that we will go back and emphasize that you got to stay low on the hits. It’s a fast game and a full speed break sometimes you can’t control some of those but I am for the rule. We will look at it and go back to work on it.”
Because of those targeting calls and injuries, Minnesota's sub packages were out of sorts for the majority of the game last night. If you would have told Jay Sawvel that he'd be missing Cody Poock, Jonathan Celestin and Nick Rallis when Minnesota switched into their 2-4-5 defense last night, I think he would have laughed, but that's the cards Minnesota was dealt. Young guys such as Kamal Martin, Julian Huff, Tai'yon Devers and Jaylen Waters were pressed into significant snaps because of that, and for the most part held their own.
Where you saw Oregon State break those big plays was on the busted coverages where a young player would miss his assignment and it'd leave the running back alone with a lot of green ahead of him and that's where you saw those explosive plays for the Beavers.
I can guarantee that when Claeys and Sawvel watch back the film here, there will be some "teaching" going on for these young guys, but the plan for last night was not for someone like Kamal Martin to play 40+ snaps, but that was the reality and Minnesota had to adjust on the fly.
Gophers will get their linebackers back for next week, and there are some teaching moments for the younger guys as well.
You can't have two bad snaps go over the head of your quarterback, especially when one goes through the end zone resulting in a safety. I'm chalking these mishaps from Tyler Moore to some nerves here playing at home as an underclassman in the first game of the season, but it's something that has to be corrected going forward.