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Minnesota Football: RoWINg to Maryland - Opponent Preview

Fingers crossed a worse opponent fields better results for Minnesota

Maryland v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Minnesota Golden Gophers (0-1) drag their tire fire to College Park this week for a Friday night matchup with the Maryland Terrapins (0-1).

Try to contain your excitement.

How did the Terrapins fare in Week 1?

Maryland opened Year 2 of the Mike Locksley experiment with a 43-3 loss to Northwestern.

Can Maryland score on offense?

Against Minnesota? Is that even a question?

Minnesota ranks second to last nationally (100th) in scoring defense — trailing only Nebraska, who were facing Ohio State’s high-powered offense — and 96th in rushing defense after unveiling their 2020 slapstick routine against Michigan in Week 1. It was a knee slapper, for sure.

That said, Maryland did not look great in Week 1, either. The offense, led by sophomore quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, was limited to three points against Northwestern. The Terps operate a spread offense under Locksley, and tried to spread out the Wildcats’ defense with three- and four-wide receiver sets. But Tagovailoa’s accuracy and decision-making left much to be desired, finishing 14-of-25 for 94 passing yards and throwing three interceptions on Saturday — two into double coverage and one on an overthrow on a deep pass down the field.

The Northwestern defense dictated the terms of the game. Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz’s game plan was to put the brakes on the Terps’ ground game and force Tagovailoa to beat them through the air. It was a bold plan considering the Wildcats were shorthanded in the secondary, with starting safety Travis Whillock out for the season and cornerback Greg Newsome II sidelined due to injury. But it worked, as Maryland running backs were limited to 80 yards on 17 carries. The Terps were also without their second-string running back, Tayon Fleet-Davis, who did not travel with the team for the opener after being charged with a DUI last November.

It’s an open question whether Minnesota could execute a similar plan. Can they stop the run? They certainly didn’t against Michigan. Can they keep Tagovailoa from getting comfortable in the pocket and force him into making bad decisions? They certainly weren’t able to pressure the quarterback against Michigan. Can they hold up in the secondary against a spread passing attack? Michigan didn’t really challenge Minnesota through the air — when you are averaging 8.2 yards per carry, there is no need — but neither safety Tyler Nubin nor slot cornerback Justus Harris looked the part of a Big Ten starter in the opener.

Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score

Northwestern, boasting a new-look offense under a new offensive coordinator, gashed Maryland on the ground to the tune of 325 rushing yards. But there were also times when the Wildcats went five-wide and let quarterback Peyton Ramsey pick apart the Terps’ zone coverage.

Maryland boasts a pair of playmakers at linebacker in Chance Campbell and Ayinde Eley, who were No. 1 and 2, respectively, in tackles against Northwestern. But the Terps’ defensive front, featuring four brand new starters up on the defensive line, looked overwhelmed in Week 1. The Wildcats spread them out and kept them from stacking the box against the run, and Maryland’s defense was almost a mirror image of Minnesota’s, failing to plug gaps or set the edge.

The Terps also struggled to keep pace when Northwestern would go no-huddle, and the Maryland defense was on its heels as a result and at times struggled to match the Wildcats’ personnel.

It’s pretty likely Minnesota will be able to put up points on this defense. But the Gophers will have to force Maryland to respect their passing game, because Locksley and co. will no doubt have watched the Michigan game film and recognized that running back Mohamed Ibrahim was the best thing the Minnesota offense had going for it in Week 1. In his postgame comments, Locksley said he wished he had committed more defenders to stopping the run against Northwestern. That means Rashod Bateman’s supporting cast at wide receiver will need to make an appearance after a no-show performance against the Wolverines.

The good news is that the Terps’ pass rush is not nearly as formidable as the Wolverines’, and their top pass rusher — linebacker Durell Nchami — exited the Northwestern game due to injury. His status for the Minnesota game is unknown.

But who will score more points on Saturday?

When the Gophers prove they can get more than one defensive stop in a game, then (and only then) will I predict them to win a game. I don’t care how bad the Terrapins looked in Week 1. Northwestern has a good defense. Minnesota has quite possibly the worst defense in the Big Ten. I’ll wait for them to show me otherwise. Maryland 35, Minnesota 32.