Facing a Maryland Terrapins squad starting their fourth-string quarterback — it was previously reported that Max Bortenschlager was third-string, but North Carolina transfer Caleb Henderson was injured in the preseason and would have started if healthy — the Minnesota Golden Gophers embarrassed themselves in a 31-24 loss at home to open up Big Ten conference play, effectively ending any kind of honeymoon period for new head coach P.J. Fleck. The Gopher defense was exposed and the lack of creativity on offense finally came back to haunt Fleck and co. But were their positives? Let’s take a look.
(Spoiler alert: No, not really.)
The Gophers’ wide receivers. With the pregame news that freshman wide receiver Demetrius Douglas would be sidelined with a foot injury, I was preparing for the worst from a wide receiver corps that hadn’t shown much life up to this point outside of sophomore Tyler Johnson. But senior Eric Carter and redshirt freshman Phillip Howard rose to the occasion, combining for 100 receiving yards on 6 receptions. Howard had quite a bit of success on underneath routes, while Carter hauled in a diving 35-yard catch in the fourth quarter to help the Gophers tie the game. Johnson also had 3 receptions for 69 yards after a quiet game against MTSU.
Rhoda goes long to Carter, who lays out just short of TD! Watch @GopherFootball now on @FS1, #FOXSportsGO: https://t.co/peKxyacKBo pic.twitter.com/tNECBGolJ0— FOX Sports North (@fsnorth) September 30, 2017
It was also nice to see senior tight ends Brandon Lingen and Nate Wozniak active in the passing game. Wozniak is suddenly racking up the YAC in open space, and Lingen caught a touchdown pass from Conor Rhoda in the third quarter.
Tackling. Regardless of who was going to be under center for Maryland, the Terps have athletes at the skill positions that could make life miserable for opposing defenses, and that’s exactly what happened against Minnesota. Running backs Ty Johnson (18 carries, 130 rushing yards, 1 touchdown) and Lorenzo Harrison III (17 carries, 75 rushing yards) ran wild. Missed tackles were a significant factor in their production. There is nothing more frustrating than watching defenders make contact but fail to wrap up and finish. The Gophers’ top-ranked rushing defense (59 yards allowed per game) was exposed to the tune of 262 rushing yards.
Third down defense. The Terps’ offense was 9-for-16 (56%) on third down. Minnesota was tied for ninth nationally in third down defense (26%) prior to this game, which would seem to be in part because of inferior competition, as some feared. The defense’s third down failures allowed Maryland to extend drives and dominate the time of possession, especially in the first half.
Pressuring the quarterback. The Gopher defense came close to sacking Bortenschlager once. Just that once though. Other than that, the fourth-string quarterback felt no pressure in the pocket and was able to pick apart the Gophers’ short-handed secondary. For comparison, Central Florida collected five sacks against Bortenschlager a week ago.
Injuries and suspensions. The Gophers were at a disadvantage even before the opening kickoff, with redshirt sophomore cornerback Zo Craighton out for the season due to injury and safety Duke McGhee suspended for an unspecified violation of team rules. To make matters worse, the Gophers lost their leader on defense, Antoine Winfield, Jr., in the first half after re-aggravating the hamstring injury he suffered during preseason camp. Minnesota simply doesn’t have the depth to sustain these losses. Duke’s suspension opened the door for senior safety Kunle Ayinde to see the field, and Winfield’s injury led to freshman Ken Handy-Holly’s redshirt being pulled. Those are significant dropoffs in talent and experience, respectively.
Conor Rhoda. The senior quarterback lands somewhere between “Good” and “Bad” because I thought he took some strides in the second half, even though his entire body of work as a whole left a lot to be desired. His first half: 4-for-10, 72 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT. That’s not good. But in the Gophers’ two touchdown drives in the second half, Rhoda was 6-for-7 for 117 yards with one touchdown. More of that, please. Unfortunately those were only flashes of competence in an otherwise mediocre performance.
Rhoda was also responsible for the Gophers’ two turnovers, both of which proved costly. His first interception off the tipped pass to Tyler Johnson in the red zone was poorly placed but catchable, so I’m willing to split blame between him and Johnson. Regardless of who was most at fault, Maryland took the lead with a touchdown on the ensuing drive. Then the back-breaking interception to seal the game was all Rhoda.
His final stat line: 13-for-26, 229 passing yards, 1 TD, 2 INT.
The running game. Concerns about the rushing attack during the non-conference schedule were validated with an 80-yard rushing effort against Maryland. The Gophers averaged 2.6 yards per carry on 31 attempts. The run blocking was atrocious, but the offensive playcalling was extremely predictable — whereas Maryland lived and died attacking the edges, Minnesota ran strictly inside zone — and the Terrapins frequently stacked the box to clog any possible running lanes. I don’t think we’ll see a 1,000-yard rusher this season, and when you have two backs like Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks in the backfield, that is an astonishing feat.
Special teams. How difficult is it to not send the kickoff out of bounds? That’s a serious question. If this is some kind of herculean task, please enlighten me as to why. Because Ryan Santoso sent the kickoff out of bounds twice against Maryland, the second of which helped set up the Terrapins’ field goal drive to end the first half. In other special teams news, kicker Emmit Carpenter missed a 42-yard field goal on the Gophers’ opening drive of the second half. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Brooks’ misplay on that kickoff in the final minute further doomed the offense’s already dismal chances of marching down the field to tie the game.