MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Tracy Claeys was a defensive coordinator for 15 years at four different schools before taking over as head coach at Minnesota, so he knows a thing or two about making adjustments to the game plan on the fly.
Seeing three key members of a unit that is expected to lead the Golden Gophers to new heights be ejected for illegal hits? That was a new one even for him.
Minnesota overcame the loss of linebackers Cody Poock and Jonathan Celestin and defensive end Tai’yon Devers for targeting to beat Oregon State 30-23 on Thursday night.
“I’m all for that rule,” Claeys said. “We just have to go back and look at the film and everyone’s got to lower their target down.”
Poock was flagged for a helmet-to-helmet hit on a receiver after a pass fell incomplete. Celestin launched himself head-first into sliding quarterback Darell Garretson’s helmet and the freshman Devers came in high on Garretson on a late hit in search of his third sack of the game.
“It was kind of crazy and kind of nerve-racking seeing all of our starters go out like that,” Minnesota defensive back Damarius Travis said.
Rodney Smith rushed for 125 yards and two touchdowns, the last coming in the fourth quarter to put the Gophers in front 24-23, and the short-handed defense held the Beavers scoreless over the final 15 minutes to hang on for a tense victory in a game they were favored to win by 13 points.
“You try to educate and get the young men where they need to be to handle the scenarios,” Oregon State coach Gary Andersen said of the targeting penalties. “It’s hard. The quarterback now, he starts sliding, he’s protected, which we want to protect the players. You’ve got to show the game tape. There’s not a lot of game tape on that.”
Mitch Leidner was erratic as ever in going 13 for 26 for 130 yards. But he rushed for 76 yard and two scores, the last a 1-yard run with 1:27 left to give the Gophers a seven-point cushion.
Garretson threw for 228 yards and three touchdowns for Oregon State. The junior transfer lost two fumbles on crunching sacks by Devers in the first half, but Garretson bounced back to throw TDs to Noah Togiai, Victor Bolden and Tim Cook.
“They were strong. They were physical. They flew around,” Garretson said. “They knew what they were doing. They were comfortable. You could see. We put up a pretty good fight.”
OREGON STATE: After going 2-10 in Andersen’s first season last year, the Beavers were hoping Garretson’s arrival would help speed the rebuilding process. The early returns are promising. He completed 25 of 40 passes and hung in there while being sacked four times.
“You’re not going to find a tougher kid than that,” Andersen said. “He’ll stay in there and he’ll fight like crazy. He didn’t just get hit. He got drilled numerous times.”
MINNESOTA: If the Gophers are truly going to contend in the wide-open Big Ten West, they will have to be much more disciplined and precise going forward. They had eight penalties for 70 yards. Center Tyler Moore snapped the ball over Leidner’s head twice, one resulting in a safety, and Leidner missed several open receivers down the field, an underwhelming performance all around.
“I think it’s a mixture of both being a little too amped and a little nervous,” Leidner said. “Unfortunately you don’t get preseason games like the NFL does to get adjusted to things like that. But to be able to win a game and have some of that sloppiness, that will definitely help us moving forward.”
GOING FOR 2
When the Gophers scored in the last 90 seconds to take a seven-point lead, Claeys elected to go for 2 to try to make it a two-score game. An extra point would have made it impossible for the Beavers to win the game in regulation.
“My opinion is 95 percent of the time those teams go down and score late, they’re going to kick the extra point and go to overtime,” Claeys said. “So I would rather take the chance on getting three yards and ending the game.”
OREGON STATE: The Beavers get next week off before hosting Idaho State for their home opener on Sept. 17.
MINNESOTA: The Gophers host Indiana State on Sept. 10 for what should be an easy tune-up before they face Colorado State for a third straight home game.
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