Stop me if this sounds familiar: The Minnesota Golden Gophers are 3-0 to open the season and set to face a Maryland Terrapins squad that beat Texas to open the season before being dominated by an American Athletic Conference team in Week 3.
We know how this scenario ended last year. Will this year be different?
Let’s take a closer look.
Were they any good last year?
Record: 4-8 (2-7, T-6th B1G East)
S&P+ Overall Ranking: 114th
How good can any team be when their starting quarterback tears his ACL in Week 1, before losing their second-string quarterback to another ACL tear in Week 3? The Terps shocked the Texas Longhorns in the season opener, 51-41, to spoil the debut of head coach Tom Herman, but ultimately could not withstand the loss of their top two signal callers.
Maryland, even with a third-string quarterback, was at least good enough to beat the Gophers 31-24 at TCF Bank Stadium to open conference play. One week later, the Buckeyes put up 62 points on the Terps. They would end up losing seven of their last eight games of the season, pulling out a narrow 42-39 victory over Indiana for their second conference win.
What about this year?
I’m less certain of the answer to this question after the Temple game.
The good news for the Terps: Both their first- and-second string quarterbacks — redshirt freshman Kasim Hill and redshirt sophomore Tyrrell Pigrome, respectively — are healthy. And Maryland was able to repeat their feat of a season-opening victory over the Texas Longhorns, before erasing an early deficit against Bowling Green the following week en route to a 45-14 blowout.
Then came a visit from the Owls.
Looking for their first win of the season after back-to-back losses to FCS program Villanova and Buffalo and with a second-string quarterback making his first career start under center, Temple turned a road trip to Maryland into a nightmare for the Terps. Their defense pitched a shutout against a Maryland offense averaging 39.5 points per game, with the Terps’ two touchdowns in the game coming on a pick six and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown.
The definition of a “head scratcher.”
This has all come under the shadow of head coach D.J. Durkin being placed on administrative leave while the university investigates claims of a “toxic culture” in the wake of an ESPN report questioning the circumstances surrounding offensive lineman Jordan McNair’s death during offseason conditioning. The investigation has concluded and the findings will be announced on Friday, which will presumably include the fate of Durkin. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada has served as interim head coach in his absence.
Can they score on offense?
Against Texas? Yes.
Against Temple? No.
Against Minnesota? TBD.
The passing game has been lackluster, even with both Hill and Pigrome healthy. Pigrome has seen limited action and been used as more of a change-of-pace quarterback when Hill needs a breather. Hill, the starter, was solid against Texas, but has struggled since then. He wasn’t asked to do much against Bowling Green, with the Terps’ rushing attack taking over in the second half as Maryland buried the Falcons. But Hill was ineffective against the Owls, completing 7-of-17 pass attempts for 56 yards and one interception.
Gone to the NFL is superstar wide receiver D.J. Moore, but the Terps have a variety of weapons at wide receiver to fill the void. True freshman Jeshaun Jones stands out after rushing for a touchdown, catching a touchdown, and passing for a touchdown in his debut against Texas. Senior wide receivers Taivon Jacobs and Jahrvis Davenport also figure to be key contributors in the passing game, but that trio has combined for 14 receptions in the first three games of the season. The Terps simply haven’t been able to get the ball in the hands of their playmakers.
Against Bowling Green, Maryland was able to hide their deficiencies through the air by leaning on a rushing attack that boasts an embarrassment of riches at running back. Senior Ty Johnson, junior Lorenzo Harrison III, sophomore Tayon Fleet-Davis, and redshirt freshman Anthony McFarland combined for 401 rushing yards and four touchdowns to lead the Terps past the Falcons. But against Texas and Temple, that foursome was limited to a combined 192 yards, and McFarland accounted for 107 of those yards alone in the Temple game.
Part of the problem against Temple was an offensive line that could not protect Hill or open holes for their stable of talented running backs. The Terps were missing right tackle Damian Prince, right guard Terrance Davis, and left tackle Derwin Gray — all three of them sidelined with injuries. Those were personnel losses Maryland could not withstand, as the front five allowed the Owls to tally seven(!) sacks. The Terps also finished with 132 rushing yards, although 89 of those yards came with less than six minutes left in the fourth quarter.
If the Gophers’ defense can follow the blueprint that Temple executed to perfection — don’t let the quarterback get comfortable, tackle well against the run, and get off the field on third down — then I don’t see this game ending well for Maryland. Last year, Minnesota lost Antoine Winfield, Jr. early in the game and it spiraled out of control from there, as the Terps ran wild for 262 rushing yards. That can’t happen again if the Gophers hope to prevail.
Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score
To be honest, I think the Gophers’ chances of scoring against Maryland will depend on the health of quarterback Zack Annexstad and whether or not the offensive line can keep him healthy. The Terps’ defense is much improved from a season ago and Minnesota needs to be operating at 100 percent on offense to move the ball consistently and effectively.
The Terps run a 3-4 base defense under defensive coordinator Andy Buh, and weren’t able to generate much of a pass rush or stop the run at all last season. The former continues to be an issue for Maryland, as the Terps’ defense beat up on Bowling Green for five sacks but recorded two against Texas and none against Temple. This has allowed opposing quarterbacks to get comfortable, as the Longhorns’ Sam Ehlinger and the Owls’ Anthony Russo were both able to complete more than 50 percent of their passes and throw for more than 200 yards.
Redshirt senior linebacker Jesse Aniebonam, sidelined all of last season with a broken ankle, is their best pass rusher. He’s quick off the ball and powerful at the point of attack, with outstanding closing speed.
But Maryland has taken a big step forward in defending the run, currently allowing 78.5 rushing yards per game through their first three games. Illinois grad transfer Tre Watson has been a big part of that. The senior linebacker leads the team with 28 tackles.
This is a secondary that, under head coach D.J. Durkin, wants to be able to play man coverage and be aggressive. The unit graduated a starting cornerback and a starting safety in the offseason, but returned an experienced corps of defensive backs. Their strength last season was in creating havoc — making a tackle for loss, forcing a fumble, or defending a pass — as the Terps ranked 18th in the country in havoc rate according to S&P+. Maryland already has four interceptions this year, including a pick six last week by senior safety Darnell Savage, Jr.
Junior nickelback Antoine Brooks is the name to remember. He is essentially the Terps' version of Antoine Winfield Jr., as you'll see him all over the field, defending the pass and stopping the run.
The problem for the Maryland defensive backs has been limiting big plays. They’ve allowed 14 receptions of 15 yards or more in their first three games. Conversely, the Minnesota offense has tallied 15 receptions of at least 15 yards or more in three games with Annexstad under center.
But who will score more points on Saturday?
Prior to Week 3, I did not like the Gophers’ chances against the Terps. But the Temple game exposed serious deficiencies on offense that I believe Minnesota can take advantage of. If the Gopher defense can stop the run — something they failed to do a season ago — then Maryland will have a tough time moving the ball. But Minnesota has deficiencies of their own on offense, and I expect they’ll struggle against the Terps’ athletic defense, especially if Zack Annexstad or hobbled, or worse, sidelined. They’ll need to be able to make big plays in the passing game. Ultimately, I think the Gophers’ more balanced offensive attack is the difference in this game. Minnesota 21, Maryland 17.