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Minnesota Football: RoWINg to Maryland - Opponent Preview

Minnesota must deny Taulia Tagovailoa a repeat of last season’s performance

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 09 Maryland at Ohio State

The Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-2) host the Maryland Terrapins (4-2) on Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium, with the Mike Locksley-coached Terps coming off their bye week following a pair of blowout losses to Iowa and Ohio State.

Can Maryland score on offense?

Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa needs no introduction. He threw for 394 passing yards and three passing touchdowns and rushed for 59 yards and two rushing touchdowns in the Terrapins’ 45-44 overtime victory over the Gophers last season. Tagovailoa is back under center for Maryland this season and is by far their most valuable player on offense, completing 72.1% of his passes and racking up 1,776 passing yards and 14 touchdowns through the first six games. But turning the ball over has been issue of late, as he has thrown eight interceptions in the Terps’ last three games, including five against Iowa. Defenses have also been better able to contain Tagovailoa in the pocket, sacking him 12 times this season and limiting him to -4 yards rushing.

Tagovailoa was robbed of his go-to target in the passing game when wide receiver Dontay Demus Jr. suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Hawkeyes. Demus is still the team leader in receptions (28) and receiving yards (507). Maryland also saw receiver Jeshaun Jones, who is third on the team in receptions and receiving yards, carted off the field after suffering a season-ending knee injury against Ohio State. That means more targets for sophomore Rakim Jarrett, a speedster who has scored a touchdown in all but one of the Terps’ six games so far this season.

In the absence of Demus and Jones, Tagovailoa may also lean more on pass-catching tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo, who has three receiving touchdowns so far this season.

On the ground, redshirt senior running back Tayon Fleet-Davis provides Maryland with a versatile weapon. He has 55 carries for 338 rushing yards and four touchdowns in addition to 18 receptions for 145 receiving yards and one receiving touchdown. He has operated behind an offensive line that seemed to be showing improvement through the first four games of the season before getting exposed against Iowa and Ohio State. They were especially outmatched in pass protection against the Buckeyes, who pressured Tagovailoa all game and recorded five sacks.

Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score

Statistically, the Terps’ defense is not great. Through the first half of the season, Maryland has allowed 126.3 rushing yards per game (40th nationally), 260.8 passing yards per game (104th), and 29 points per game (88th). Those averages obviously ballooned after the Terrapins got drubbed in back-to-back blowouts against Iowa and Ohio State. You expect the Buckeyes to rack up 66 points against a team like the Terps, but allowing the Hawkeyes to put up 51? I understand the offense set the defense up to fail by turning the ball over seven times, but there’s no excuse for letting Spencer Petras pick apart your secondary for 259 passing yards and three touchdowns.

In their defense, Maryland has been beset by injuries on that side of the ball. Starting cornerback Jakorian Bennett was sidelined with a hamstring injury in the first half against Iowa and missed the Ohio State game. Cornerback Kenny Bennett also missed the Ohio State game with a hamstring injury. Starting linebacker Fa’Najae Gotay has been out since the season opener after suffering an upper body injury that required surgery. Brandon Jennings, another starter at linebacker, suffered a leg injury in Week 3 and has missed their last two games. And finally, Maryland announced this week that starting linebacker Durell Nchami will undergo season-ending upper body surgery.

Both Bennetts are expected back against Minnesota after taking the bye week to get healthy, which should help a secondary that spends a lot of time in man-to-man coverage due to the Terps’ blitz-heavy style of defense. Safety Nick Cross is the leader, tied for the team lead in passes defended (5) and interceptions (2). Maryland also has one of the better cornerbacks in the Big Ten in sophomore Tarheeb Still, who is tied with Cross for passes defended and total tackles (28).

Up front, the Terps are solid against the run. Even though Minnesota no longer has Mohamed Ibrahim or Trey Potts to carry the load at running back, expect Maryland to approach the Gophers’ offense they way they approached Ohio State’s, with a game plan predicated on stopping the run and forcing the offense to beat them with a downfield passing game. When rushing the passer, defensive coordinator Brian Stewart typically brings pressure from at least five defenders, often blitzing at least one of their athletic linebackers. But their top pass rusher is redshirt senior defensive end Sam Okuayinonu, who leads the team with five sacks.

But who will score more points on Saturday?

The recipe for success here is simple: Keep Tagovailoa in the pocket, never let him get comfortable, and force him into making poor decisions. Expect defensive coordinator Joe Rossi to dial up a similar game plan to the one he deployed against Nebraska, which focused on making Adrian Martinez uncomfortable in the pocket and keeping him from beating the Gophers on the ground. Minnesota also needs to continue to get Tanner Morgan into a rhythm in the passing game like he did in the first half against the Cornhuskers. Maryland has shown themselves to be vulnerable to big plays through the air. Minnesota 27, Maryland 21.