Despite watching Conor Rhoda only attempt eight passes in last weekend’s rout of Oregon State, first-year Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck saw enough to be convinced the senior quarterback had done enough to separate himself from Demry Croft and emerge as the starter. Rhoda looks to justify Fleck’s faith in him again on Saturday when the Golden Gophers host Middle Tennessee to close out their non-conference schedule.
Minnesota piled up 58 rushes versus only eight passes in last Saturday’s 48-14 victory against the Beavers, but Croft fumbled on a second-quarter carry and ceded most of the playing time for the rest of the game to Rhoda, who finished 7-of-8 for 158 yards - including a 67-yard touchdown in the first quarter. “Today is the first time I’ve watched Conor Rhoda control the football team. Seven of eight (passing), that’s pretty elite right there. I thought he led us better than he ever has,” Fleck told reporters. The Blue Raiders showed poorly in a 28-6 defeat in their season opener against Vanderbilt, but they earned their fifth win over a Power 5 opponent in 12 years under Rick Stockstill at Syracuse last weekend as the coach’s son, Brent, threw touchdown passes on three consecutive drives in the second half of a 30-23 triumph.
TV: 3:30 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network. LINE: Minnesota -10.5.
ABOUT MIDDLE TENNESSEE (1-1): Brent Stockstill took home Conference USA Offensive Player of the Week honors by managing to throw for all three of his touchdowns after sustaining a second-half shoulder injury - an ailment that leaves him questionable for Minnesota as he awaits the results of an MRI. Junior receiver Richie James is well on track to post his third consecutive 100-catch season with 18 receptions for 208 yards and two scores through two contests. Rick Stockstill said during Monday’s presser that he was pleased with the way 5-8, 163-pound sophomore Ty Lee - a converted receiver - fared in his first game as the main running back, finishing with 18 carries for 50 yards and a touchdown.
ABOUT MINNESOTA (2-0): Fleck announced Tuesday that Croft will be away from the team for an unspecified amount of time for “personal issues beyond football,” according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s Randy Johnson. The running game has taken center stage thus far, as junior running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks have combined for 88 carries, 328 yards and four TDs. Smith needs four more rushing yards to become the 14th Gopher to rush for 2,000 career yards while Brooks trails his backfield mate by only 477 yards despite 158 fewer carries; both backs have a very good shot at overtaking Garry White (2,353) for 10th place on the school’s all-time list before the end of the season.
1. Minnesota’s 48 points were the most it scored against an FBS opponent since a 51-14 home win against Iowa in 2014.
2. James needs eight catches and one more touchdown reception to set new school marks in those categories after breaking the Blue Raiders’ career receiving yardage mark against Vanderbilt.
3. The Gophers yielded only 35 total yards after the break to the Beavers and have allowed a combined 104 yards and no points in the second half to their opponents thus far.
PREDICTION: Minnesota 30, Middle Tennessee 17