Minnesota has lost three consecutive Big Ten games after starting the season with three nonconference wins. For Gophers coach P.J. Fleck, he hopes that a remedy to the losing steak comes in the form of redshirt sophomore quarterback Demry Croft.
Croft is expected to start Saturday against Illinois after leading the Gophers on a fourth-quarter comeback that fell just short against Michigan State. Minnesota trailed 23-6 entering the fourth before Croft threw three touchdowns passes to Tyler Johnson — the last with 1:06 to play — before the Spartans held on to win 30-27.
“He showed what he can do. He can create,” Fleck said after the game. “He can take a broken play and get out of there. He can make the right throws.”
The switch to Croft came in the second quarter, after the offense was sputtering with Connor Rhoda, who was 5-of-12 passing for 53 yards and a rating of 9.8.
“We talked as a staff on Friday night about possibly playing Demry at some point to get him some experience,” Fleck said. “When that would come, we didn't know. And it wasn't going to come necessarily at a bad situation or a bad time in the game.
“It just came at the right time where I feel like I had to be able to give him an opportunity to show what he could do — and he comes in and throws an interception.”
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Croft’s interception came after completing his first two passes and driving the Gophers to the Spartans 17-yard line. His elbow was hit as he threw; he failed to evade the Spartans’ pass rush by stepping up in the pocket.
Once he shook off his mistake, Croft gave the Gophers’ offense the spark it needed. He connected with Johnson on passes of 28, 17 and 9 yards to prevent Minnesota from being blown out.
He finished 11-of-20 passing for 163 yards with three touchdowns and one interception, and added 31 yards rushing.
“It’s a blessed feeling to be out there with the guys and just keep rowing the boat and seeing the smile on everybody’s faces,” Croft said after the game.
Rhoda, a fifth-year senior, and Croft were listed as co-starters for the first two games of the season, until Croft was dismissed from the team for three weeks after the Gophers’ 48-14 win at Oregon State in week 2. Fleck said it was for “personal issues.”
Croft and Rhoda split reps for the first two days of practice this week. Fleck said Croft still needs to regain his trust, but his performance against Michigan State was a good first step.
“I’ve seen a difference (in Croft),” Fleck told reporters after the game. “It’s too early to say I’ve seen a big difference. Trust is built over a very long period of time. It’s not built on, ‘OK, I won’t do that.’ Trust is very hard to gain and very easy to lose. That’s going to be a process as we continue to go forward.”