Quarterback play has been a problem for Minnesota football for quite some time and probably has cost the program numerous key wins. Has new head coach P.J. Fleck found an answer?
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A Gophers' quarterback has never thrown for more 2,900 yards or 24 touchdowns in a season. Only once since 2008 has a player recorded more than 15 passing touchdowns, and they haven't had a full-time starter finish the season with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of better than 1.5-to-1 since 2010.
And perhaps most depressing for a starving fan base, quarterback play was the difference in countless games during the Jerry Kill era. An average quarterback may have delivered a berth in the 2014 Big Ten Championship. Mitch Leidner was 5-for-18 for 95 yards in a 10-point loss to Wisconsin the regular-season finale played for the Big Ten West title.
His repeated wild bounced passes and overthrows — a staple of his career in Minneapolis — doomed them in blowing a 17-3 lead and racking up 49 total yards on five of their six second-half drives. Though defeating Ohio State in the title game would've been a monumental task, the Gophers still would've been 60 minutes from their first conference championship since 1967.
So you can understand why Minnesota fans were giddy, if not bewildered, when Demry Croft went 8-for-13 for 131 yards and three touchdowns in the fourth quarter of a furious comeback attempt against Michigan State in Week 7.
It was the best a Minnesota quarterback has played since Tim Brewster's pro-style offense ruined Adam Weber, who owns most of the program's single-season and career passing records.
Though Croft's near-flawless three-drive fourth quarter — which also included 39 rushing yards — spurred optimism, it was an interception on his first drive after replacing ineffective starter Conor Rhoda, whom Croft had rotated with their first three games before being suspended for two games, that may prove to be invaluable.
Facing an 11-point deficit and 1st-and-10 from the Michigan State 35-yard with three minutes remaining in the first half, Croft faked the jet sweep and dropped back. As he cocked to hit Tyler Johnson on the near sideline, his arm was hit and the wobbly pass was intercepted.
Croft was immediately greeted on the sideline by senior safety Duke McGhee, who tapped his helmet and offered encouragement. McGhee was followed by Eric Carter, Julian Huff, Kobe McCrary and more than a dozen other teammates.
P.J. Fleck was peeved Croft didn't adjust to the edge pressure but he was likely beaming watching the sideline leadership.
"We talk about this all time: Bad teams, nobody leads; average teams, coaches have to lead; elite teams, players lead," he told HERO Sports. "This has been a whole year of teaching our players how to be able lead each other and not just waiting for a coach to do it.
"The reason why [he threw the interception] he didn't step up in the pocket and he allowed a defender to hit his arm . . . and threw off his back foot. So very simply, players and coaches [said], 'Hey, just step up in the pocket and be you.' And he came back out and was him."
COMPARE: Demry Croft vs. Conor Rhoda
It was the best performance of Croft's career. He finished 11-for-20 for 163 yards and three touchdowns, all career highs and all that — oddly, especially for a team on a three-game losing streak — were arguably bigger than a win. Beating the top-25 Spartans would've been a major milestone in Fleck's "Year Zero", in which he's choosing culture over results, but a loss with good quarterback play may carry more weight.
"When you get thrown in there, it takes a little time to be comfortable, especially when you haven't played a lot," Fleck added of Croft, who entered the game with 29 career pass attempts and zero passing touchdowns. "But I thought he really settled down and got into the role we didn't him to do."
That role is one crafted by the player-prompted leadership Fleck preaches daily to a program on their third head coach in three years. And while the first-year coach who has more energy than Michael Scott on Pretzel Day won't commit to a starter for Saturday's home game vs. Illinois — saying, "We'll play the best quarterback who has the opportunity to give us a chance to win." — the most impressive performance from a Minnesota quarterback in years is a sign that things are working.