Gophers cruise to a 62-10 win over Western Illinois

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Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck described Minnesota’s 38-0 season-opening win over New Mexico State as “workmanlike.”

Leading Western Illinois 31-3 at the half on Saturday, Fleck was a man working every angle and not expressing things he saw in quick interviews. He was perturbed by a turnover, an explosive play allowed and even wanted one second left on the clock after a Leathernecks turnover on downs just before intermission.

While it might not have been perfect, the Gophers cruised to a 62-10 win over the FCS-level program at Huntington Bank Stadium.

Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said Wednesday the improvement between Week 1 and 2 can be the biggest jump within a season. There was undoubted growth.

Minnesota’s point total was the most since they beat Indiana 63-26 in 2006 and their 679 total yards was third most in program history.

If Fleck wanted to instill his pursuit of perfectionism on something, he could have directed his attention toward Goldy. The mascot’s pushups to match Minnesota’s points scored became pretty suspect come the fourth quarter. His form began to take shortcuts, hairy arms shook and he even dropped down to his knees to approach the big number.

After scoring five rushing touchdowns in the win over New Mexico State, Minnesota poured in seven on the ground Saturday. More is often better. Trey Potts and Mo Ibrahim each contributed two TDs. Quarterbacks Tanner Morgan, backup QB Athan Kaliakmanis and backup running back Presten Jelen had one apiece.

Morgan had completed 68 percent of his passes for 174 yards against New Mexico State, and he completed on 78 percent for 287 yards and his first TD pass Saturday. That’s a jump.

While Minnesota remained run-heavy Saturday, they had success through the air with Leathernecks putting eight players in the box. Morgan had big plays to Chris Autman-Bell (54 yards), Lemeke Brockington (36) Michael Brown-Stephens (35), including yards after the catch.

The biggest was the U’s first passing TD of the season, when Morgan found a wide open Brevyn Spann-Ford for a 45-yard touchdown in the third quarter.

The Gophers suffered their first turnover of the season on the opening drive, with receiver Brown-Stephens fumbling on the game’s second play. Nothing will irk Fleck quite like a fumble.

But after forcing Western Illinois into turnover on downs on the next drive, Minnesota put together a long and a short touchdown drive its first 14-point opening quarter since November 2020. It was a span of 16 games since they scored that much in the opening 15 minutes.

They would pour on many points from there.

Safety Jordan Howden was beat on a 38-yard pass in the first quarter, which led to Western Illinois’s lone field goal. But Howden made a stunning, diving interception to get Minnesota the ball back and Spann-Ford’s TD were points off a takeaway. That’s an in-game improvement.

The Gophers gave up their lone touchdown with four minutes left in the fourth quarter, with standout Nasiem Brantley finally making a play.

Fleck probably didn’t like that play, either, but there is no denying the performance was better overall from Week 1.

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