MINNEAPOLIS — Conor Rhoda is taking over for good as Minnesota’s quarterback.
Brent Stockstill may have a banged-up shoulder, but he says he won’t let it stop him from leading Middle Tennessee State on another upset quest.
Quarterbacks will be the center of attention when the Golden Gophers (2-0) host the Blue Raiders on Saturday, hoping to deliver a little payback after Middle Tennessee eliminated Minnesota in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in March.
Rhoda shared the job with Demry Croft through the first two weeks of the season, with coach P.J. Fleck openly hoping to see one of the two grab hold of the job through his performance on the field and leadership off of it. After a 48-14 victory over Oregon State in which Croft was benched for much of the game because of a fumble, Fleck made the call to make Rhoda the starter.
“It’s a really great feeling, obviously,” Rhoda said this week. “Just going through everything I’ve gone through over the last five years, there were a lot of days I thought this would never happen. It just really brings everything full circle and shows all the hard work I put in.”
That decision was only strengthened when Fleck announced on Tuesday that Croft would not be with the team against the Blue Raiders because of an unspecified disciplinary matter. It remains unclear how long Croft will be out, but Fleck intimated that it would be for more than just one week.
“Nothing ever will sacrifice the culture,” Fleck said. “Winning won’t, either, or having two quarterbacks, that will never compromise our culture.”
There is no debate who leads the Blue Raiders (1-1). Stockstill owns Middle Tennessee career records for touchdown passes and yards passing per game and has endeared himself to teammates with his toughness. Last week in a victory over Syracuse he finished the game despite taking a crunching hit to the shoulder. He led touchdown drives on three straight possessions in the second half of the 30-23 victory.
“He’s done it all his life,” said Raiders coach Rick Stockstill, Brent’s father. “That game, especially in the second half after he got hurt, to do what he did was pretty incredible. I think it rallied our offense behind him. The toughness that not only he showed but our team showed, was pretty special.”
Brent Stockstill had an MRI earlier this week, but said he expected to play on Saturday.
“I’m doing good. Just got a little banged up,” he said. “That’s part of the game, part of playing the position.”
Here are some things to watch in the game on Saturday:
Brent Stockstill carried the ball 11 times for 41 yards in the win over Syracuse. Coach Rick Stockstill was asked if he would prefer his QB not to run as often in hopes of avoiding injury. But he didn’t believe the shoulder injury should change the way his son plays. “As ineffective as we’ve been running the ball early this season, we need everybody we can to contribute,” Rick Stockstill said. “He’s done a really nice job from that standpoint.”
Fleck and Rick Stockstill have met before, when Fleck’s Western Michigan team played Middle Tennessee in the Bahamas Bowl in 2015. The Broncos beat the Blue Raiders 45-31 to snap a six-game bowl losing streak. That experience does not figure to help Stockstill much in preparing for the Gophers. “I’m sure he did some things at Western Michigan that he’s not doing at Minnesota because he’s got some different personnel. … I don’t think that will have any bearing whatsoever,” he said.
The Gophers figured to have a strong rushing attack this season with two dynamic running backs returning to the mix in Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith. They got off to a slow start in the season-opening win over Buffalo, but were much more successful last week against the Beavers. Brooks rushed for 91 yards and three touchdowns, Smith ran for 92 yards and a score. Fleck thinks staying committed to the inside zone run game in the opener against Buffalo despite its struggles primed them for the success they had last week. “That will be a staple as long as I’m your head football coach, so we had to establish that,” Fleck said. “Because there’s going to be a time that that’s what we need to call, and we need to get two yards and that’s our bread and butter or whatever it is, that’s why we have to do those things.”
Minnesota sophomore receiver Tyler Johnson ranks seventh the nation with 268 yards receiving this season on 10 catches. He had 14 catches for 141 yards all of last season.