MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (AP) _ Jon Hoese had a tough decision to make earlier this week: Stay at his father’s bedside after a severe stroke or join his teammates for Minnesota’s season-opener at Middle Tennessee.
Lucky for the Golden Gophers he decided to travel.
Hoese scored three touchdowns and made several key plays, and Duane Bennett rushed for a career-high 187 yards to lead Minnesota to a grinding 24-17 season-opening win Thursday night.
“The story of the game is Jon Hoese,” Minnesota coach Tim Brewster said. “It’s a story about a kid whose dad is gravely ill, and he played his heart out for his father tonight. He scored three touchdowns and we gave him the game ball. That game ball is going to go to Terry Hoese. That’s the storyline tonight, celebrating the love a son has for his father the love a father has for his son.”
Bennett becomes the first 100-yard rusher for the Gophers since 2008 and put up the most yards in a game since 2005. His game-opening 32-yard run was longer than any run in 2009 and he never let up. He dominated the Blue Raiders over Minnesota’s two game-clinching drives, rushing for 64 yards as the Gophers held the ball for 15:41 on their way to a field goal and Hoese’s 1-yard dive with 3:09 left.
Hoese also came up with several big plays with the game on the line, including a fumble recovery on the kickoff after his final touchdown that iced the victory.
“I didn’t want to feel guilty coming down here,” Hoese said. “But I talked to my family and they said that is what my dad would want.”
Rick Stockstill’s Blue Raiders had hoped to show the nation they were ready for the big time after a 10-win season, opening against a BCS conference opponent that looked vulnerable on ESPNU. But Minnesota exposed Middle Tennessee’s fatal flaw, its size.
“They came here to run the ball,” Stockstill said. “When they are as big as they are, they are going to control the clock.”
And did they ever. Even without suspended starting left tackle Dom Alford, Minnesota’s gargantuan offensive line, which average 317 pounds, absolutely dominated Middle Tennessee’s much smaller front seven. The Gophers ran 67 times for 281 yards and held the ball for 45:34 to the Blue Raiders’ 14:26.
Minnesota took a quick 14-0 lead early in the second quarter on Hoese dives of 1 and 2 yards that were both set up by pass interference calls in the end zone.
Along with his three touchdowns he jump-started the game-tying drive with a 5-yard run and a 22-yard catch back to back after Minnesota started at the 1. He also picked up a fourth-down conversion on a drive that ended in a failed field goal.
Minnesota rushed for 111 yards by 13:48 of the second quarter when Hoese scored the second time.
Middle Tennessee rallied from there, though. The Blue Raiders had 174 yards of total offense in the second quarter after just 33 and one first down in the first. Quarterback Logan Kilgore, who had a strong game in place of suspended starter Dwight Dasher, hit 6 of 7 passes in the quarter for 111 yards. Passes of 14 and 22 yards helped set up Phillip Tanner’s 7-yard scoring run out of the Wildcat formation.
After Minnesota’s second failed field goal, he led Middle Tennessee on a five-play, 77-yard drive in 44 seconds, hitting a diving Sancho McDonald with a 22-yard scoring pass with 36 seconds left to tie the game 14-14 at halftime.
“To see everyone not get down after going down 14-0 early, it was great to see everyone get up and keep playing,” defensive back Jeremy Kellem said.
The Blue Raiders didn’t let up early on the first drive of the second half. Tanner opened with a 51-yard run, setting up Alan Gendreau’s 31-yard field goal at 12:44 of the third quarter to give Middle Tennessee it’s first lead 17-14.
From there, Bennett took over. He finished with 30 carries and averaged 6.1 yards per attempt and the Gophers held the Blue Raiders to just three more first downs. They had the ball just 3:22 after their field goal and finished with just 40 offensive plays.
Brewster thought it was a strong start to the season: “I loved their style of play.”