MINNEAPOLIS – Demry Croft took over as the Gophers’ starting quarterback on Oct. 21 against Illinois with the assumption that his ability to run the ball would provide the offense with a boost.
Croft, a redshirt sophomore, proceeded to underwhelm. In his first three starts, he rushed for 30 yards on 12 carries in a victory over Illinois, no yards on 11 carries in a loss at Iowa and minus-5 yards on 13 carries in a loss at Michigan.
But on Saturday Croft’s legs helped make the 119th-ranked offense in college football look unstoppable. Playing against an embarrassingly bad Nebraska run defense, Croft rushed for 183 yards on 10 carries and had touchdown runs of 3-, 73- and 1-yard in a 54-21 victory over the Cornhuskers at TCF Bank Stadium.
Croft’s rushing yards – the Gophers finished with 409 yards and six touchdowns on the ground – set a school record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a game, breaking MarQueis Gray’s mark of 171 yards in 2011 against Miami of Ohio.
“I thought he did a great job deciding when to pull (the ball down) and deciding when not to pull it (down),” Gophers’ first-year coach P.J. Fleck said. “I think that’s where the growth has come from. Not just, ‘Oh, we ran Demry more today.’ There weren’t any designed quarterback powers and counters, we don’t do that. But the decision of him being able to pull it, he made those decisions. Weeks in the past he didn’t make those decisions as well.”
Croft is not the long-term answer for Fleck at quarterback. That player is not on the roster yet and Fleck’s long-term stability, more than anything else, will rely on if he can find a QB.
But in what has been a difficult season for Croft – some of that has been self-inflicted – he finally found an opponent that had no answer for him.
Croft saw action in the Gophers’ first two games, although Conor Rhoda started in each. Croft had no passing attempts and only one carry, albeit a 64-yard touchdown run, in the Gophers’ nonconference win on Sept. 9 at Oregon State.
Fleck had gone through training camp and the early portion of the season without declaring a starter, but Rhoda became the choice when Croft was suspended for three games for violating team rules. He sat out against Middle Tennessee, Maryland and Purdue before replacing the struggling Rhoda in an Oct. 14 loss to Michigan State.
Croft looked sharp against the Spartans, completing 11 of 20 passes for 163 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. He also ran 31 times on seven carries. Fleck named him the starter and Croft proceeded to struggle.
He completed 19 of 55 passes for 260 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions in the following three games. Part of this was on Croft and part of it was on the inability of his receivers to get open and/or hold onto passes.
On Saturday, Croft completed 9-of-15 passes for 105 yards. Two of his incompletions came on drops and in two cases he threw the ball away.
Fleck said simplifying the offense helped Croft.
“We wanted to be able to keep the game plan pretty tight, concise,” Fleck said. “I think that’s how Demry handles things really well. Keep it pretty tight, concise, where he can master things. I thought he mastered the game plan this week in practice. Those are things that you experiment (with) throughout the year.
“We’ve learned at times we’ve done too much. We’ve learned at times we’ve done too little. It’s just kind of like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, you find the porridge that’s just right and today we happened to find that with him. Now, we have to be able to build off that.”
(We interrupt this column to point out that you likely will never again read a quote from a football coach that includes a reference to Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Of course, if Mike Zimmer wants to take a shot at incorporating such a reference, we’d love to hear it.)
The Gophers’ evened their overall record at 5-5 and are 2-5 in the Big Ten. That record is disappointing to some, but nothing like the disappointment Nebraska fans must feel. The Cornhuskers are 4-6 after Saturday and 3-4 in the Big Ten and coach Mike Riley is sure to be fired in the coming days.
Fleck, who has two Big Ten games left in his first season as the Gophers’ coach, is convinced he will be successful. Riley has to know he has failed miserably at a school that was once a football powerhouse.
The 54-points the Gophers scored on Saturday were the second-most they have ever put up on Nebraska, falling shy of a 61-point effort in Lincoln in 1945. This might not have equaled Nebraska’s 84-13 demolition of the Gophers at the Metrodome in 1983, but it was probably just as embarrassing to Cornhuskers fans as that night was for the Gophers faithful.
The Gophers had not scored more than 27 points in a Big Ten game this season, but had 30 by halftime. Minnesota’s rushing total was the eighth-most in a game in school history and its most since putting up 411 against Wisconsin in a 2005 loss. (If you don’t know the details, Google this game right now.)
The Gophers will close the Big Ten season with a game at Northwestern next Saturday and then on Nov. 25 against Wisconsin at TCF Bank Stadium.
Both games will be far more difficult than what the Gophers faced on Saturday, and they might be the final starts of Croft’s time at Minnesota. But at least for one day Croft and the Gophers were able to forget what has been a rocky season and inflict a one-sided defeat on an opponent that once assumed victory was a given against Minnesota.