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Notebook: QB Zack Annexstad makes his debut, Gophers show creativity in a 48-10 win

08/30/2018, 10:00pm CDT
By Daniel House

Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck has made it clear his 2018 team is filled with inexperience.

Thursday night’s home-opener against New Mexico State (0-2) was the first chance to see young contributors in game action.

Minnesota’s roster is made up of 53 percent freshmen, while roughly 77 percent have been with the program for two years or less. Young players are featured across position groups, including quarterback.

Zack Annexstad became the first Gophers’ true freshman quarterback to start a season-opener since Tim Salem in 1980. He also is just the second quarterback in FBS history to start Week 1 as a true freshman walk-on. The last player to do so – Baker Mayfield in 2013. In his collegiate debut, Annexstad looked comfortable, finishing the night 16-for-33 for 220 yards and two touchdowns in a 48-10 win over New Mexico State.

Gophers start slow, finish fast

It was a slow start for the Gophers offensively, but they managed to get into a rhythm early in the second quarter. Minnesota finished with just 53 total yards in the first 15 minutes, but racked up 243 yards in the second quarter alone. Things started to click as the Gophers managed to field both a 100-yard receiver and rusher in the same game for the first time since 2016. The Gophers finished with a whopping 522 yards of total offense, including 227 through the air and 295 on the ground.

It’s hard to truly measure the Gophers’ offensive success against an opponent of this caliber, but there’s no doubting they have more fire-power at the skill positions.

Annexstad settles in, makes a strong first impression

As a true freshman quarterback settled into the offense, Minnesota started slow. The first five offensive possessions ended with three punts, a fumble and just one scoring drive.

A mishandled snap by quarterback Zack Annexstad led to a turnover, setting New Mexico State up in the red zone. A few plays later, Aggies quarterback Matt Romero found Izaiah Lottie for a 13-yard touchdown off a fade. The pass was contested by cornerback Antonio Shenault, but Lottie won the battle at the catch point. It was the first freshman mistake for Annexstad and it resulted in points for the opposing team.

Later in the first quarter, defensive end Ezesi Otomewo was called for roughing the passer, extending a New Mexico State drive. The Aggies suddenly scored a quick ten points off mistakes in the first quarter. A few sequences later, they also ran a fake punt and drew a holding penalty in the secondary to keep a second quarter drive alive.

However, Minnesota ended the first half with three scoring drives of more than 75 yards.

As the game progressed, Annexstad started to get in a rhythm, too. He found Tyler Johnson off a corner route for 33 yards and tossed a post across the middle to Chris Autman-Bell for a 15-yard completion. The Gophers mixed in two Rodney Smith 12-yard runs during an 8-play, 79-yard scoring drive. A few possessions later, Minnesota went on a 5-play, 84-yard scoring drive, fueled by 51 receiving yards from Tyler Johnson. He showed off impressive skills after the catch to reach the end zone for a 33-yard score.

Overall, Annexstad showed an ability to get the ball out to the right spot and deliver passes accurately down the field. There were a few instances where he didn’t follow the correct progression or simply delivered an inaccurate pass, but most of them occurred early in the game. He showed more confidence throwing deep to the hashes and flashed impressive arm talent on a deep fade to Rashod Bateman. He drove the pass up the sideline, perfectly placing a back shoulder throw that Bateman nearly brought in. This is the type of throw evaluators like to see young quarterbacks complete. Throughout the night, he managed the pocket well, distributed passes accurately at all levels, and outside of a fumble, took care of the football.

Gophers’ talent injection at wide receiver, Johnson’s route-running

Wide receiver Tyler Johnson finished the night with 100 yards and a pair of scores, flashing his improved route running. He was getting open off a variety of different concepts and had extensive separation because of it. Arguably the most impressive route was a 7-yard touchdown grab off a slant. Johnson dropped his hips at the top of the route and had almost three yards of separation on former Gopher cornerback Ray Buford.

Outside of Johnson, the Gophers now have legitimate options at the wide receiver position. Last year, one of the main issues regarding the Minnesota passing game was a lack of explosive playmakers who could get vertical separation.

True freshman Rashod Bateman was used in the bubble screen game, which is a great way to take advantage of his explosiveness. Bateman nearly broke free for a long touchdown reception off a curl, but was shoe-string tackled with plenty of grass in front of him. He hauled in five catches for 52 yards in his debut.

In addition to Bateman, redshirt freshman Chris Autman had four grabs for 43 yards. One of which was a tough 14-yard post across the middle where he took a big hit from a safety over the top. Autman-Bell has excellent hands in traffic and was consistently one of the players who has gained the best separation out of breaks during fall practices.

Seth Green in the Wildcat

The Gophers used a creative offensive wrinkle to finish two of their scoring drives. Wide receiver Seth Green was lined up in the Wildcat package as a quarterback. He sprinted into the end zone for a pair of red zone rushing touchdowns. It’s a wrinkle Minnesota could use from time-to-time with Green’s athletic ability and past experience at quarterback. He’s not only difficult to bring down in the running game, but could pass the ball in various situations, too.

On the ground, running back Rodney Smith finished with 153 yards on 24 carries. He was picking up extensive yards after contact and running with excellent pad level. Smith was grinding out yards and benefited from open interior lanes. Minnesota moved the ball through the air which helped prevent stacked fronts. Up front, center Jared Weyler and right guard Blaise Andries had numerous positive reps to fuel Smith’s most successful runs. Backup running back Mohamed Ibrahim also added 101 yards on the ground, including a 74-yard scamper as the Gophers finished with 295 total rushing yards.


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