The Minnesota Golden Gophers rebounded from back-to-back losses to Penn State and Iowa with a 31-10 road win over the Maryland Terrapins, notching their first Big Ten win of the season and improving their record to 4-2. Let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly from the Gophers’ first conference road win of the season.
Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. These two Gophers are practically permanent fixtures here. They’ve been by far the most consistent players on offense for Minnesota, and both were instrumental in moving the chains and finding the end zone against Maryland. The sophomore running backs combined for 257 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns. It was tough sledding for both backs behind a banged up offensive line, but neither of them was going to be denied. Brooks is no stranger to long touchdown runs, but they’ve long eluded Smith up to this point. He rectified that with a 70-yard touchdown burst in the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach. With six games left, Smith is sitting at 590 rushing yards on the season.
Jonathan Celestin. With linebacker Cody Poock sidelined, Celestin has stepped up to lead the defense, and he wreaked havoc against the Terrapins on Saturday with a team-high seven tackles, including one sack. Celestin also snuffed out a screen pass with a deflection on third down in the fourth quarter to hold Maryland to a field goal. The junior linebacker is also the team’s leading tackler through six games.
Antoine Winfield, Jr. This freshman cornerback is a stud. No doubt about it. It’s no coincidence that his emergence as a starter on defense has coincided with significant improvement in the secondary. The return of suspended cornerback KiAnte Hardin has certainly been a factor, but Winfield also deserves credit. His five tackles against Maryland, including one tackle for loss, ranked third on the Gopher defense for the game. Winfield also delivered the knockout blow to the Terrapins with an 82-yard pick six off a tipped pass in the fourth quarter. This Gopher has a bright future.
The Gophers took care of business on the road. Even with their senior quarterback sidelined, the Gophers were able to grind out a win over a Big Ten opponent on the road. After two straight weeks of demoralizing losses, it was refreshing to see Minnesota take care of business against a seemingly inferior conference opponent. This is an encouraging sign as the Gophers head into a midseason stretch of winnable games, including matchups with Rutgers, Illinois, and Purdue.
Conor Rhoda. I hesitated to place Rhoda here, because I didn’t expect much from him in this situation to begin with, but I want to make it clear that the former walk-on did nothing to suggest he is a viable alternative to starter Mitch Leidner, for those of you clamoring to see him benched. At best, Rhoda was serviceable. He did not turn the ball over and played well enough to keep the Gophers in control. This game belonged to Smith and Brooks. Rhoda finished the game 7-for-15 with 82 passing yards and one touchdown on a screen pass to Brooks. Not bad for an inexperienced former walk-on making, essentially, a spot start. But if you watched the game, you saw Rhoda uncomfortable in the pocket, put too much heat on a lot of his throws, and display an obvious lack of timing with his receivers. I’m glad Rhoda was able to notch a win in his first collegiate start, but I hope Leidner is able to return sooner rather than later.
The offensive line. With that said, the offensive line didn’t do Rhoda a lot of favors. With Jonah Pirsig sidelined for a few weeks with a high ankle sprain, Donnell Greene was inserted at left tackle, where he struggled for much of the game. Garrison Wright also left the game at one point with an ankle injury, but was able to return. The instability on the offensive line has done nothing to help a unit that has been inconsistent at best. The line struggled to protect Rhoda, who tended to panic when pressured in the pocket. And both Smith and Brooks had to do a lot of work behind the line of scrimmage to avoid being tackled for a loss. I’m not sure if the Gophers’ woes on the offensive line can be fixed this season, so offensive line coach Bart Miller has his work cut out for him the rest of the way.
Nothing. This was a good road win over a not-so-good team. The Gopher defense dominated, the offense put enough points on the board for a comfortable lead, and Minnesota was in control virtually the entire game. It wasn’t a perfect performance, but it was good enough for Gopher fans to sit back and a relax a bit.