Maryland football has a pretty big test this weekend, as Minnesota comes to College Park. After a loss to Penn State, the Terps could use a win to keep the momentum going, and Gopher quarterback Mitch Leidner’s injury should make that a little easier.
The programs have played once before: The 1977 Hall of Fame Bowl, which Maryland won 17-7. It’s been a loooooooong time since then, and it’s understandable if some of us aren’t quite familiar with Minnesota. Fortunately, Blake Ruane of SB Nation’s The Daily Gopher is, and he took some time to talk to us about the team. You can follow Blake (@blakeruane) or the site (@TheDailyGopher) on Twitter if you so wish.
Check out our corresponding Q&A here.
Testudo Times: Senior quarterback Mitch Leidner is out for Saturday's game. How big of a blow is this, and how much of a drop-off should we expect with Conor Rhoda?
The Daily Gopher: It's a huge blow. Mitch Leidner is the senior leader on offense for the Gophers. If Minnesota was going to contend in the Big Ten West this season, Mitch was expected to lead the charge. He had played well up until last week, when he had one of the worst performances of his career in a loss at home to Iowa. To add salt to the wound, Mitch is now sidelined with a concussion. And to be honest, I have no idea what to expect from Conor Rhoda on Saturday. The former walk-on has played in three games over the last three seasons and attempted just two passes, with one career completion. He is a complete enigma. Rhoda assumed the back-up quarterback role during preseason camp due to "consistency," but the belief is that the coaching staff placed him there to allow their younger quarterbacks to redshirt. At this point, I have to believe the coaches believe he gives them a chance to win, otherwise they'd be turning to Demry Croft or Seth Green. But blind faith doesn't mean that I'm at all confident.
TT: Minnesota looks like it has a pretty nice running back duo in Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. What do both of those guys bring to the table?
TDG: Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks are the best weapons the Gophers have in their arsenal. Smith is a patient and elusive runner who has added an element of toughness to his game this season. Brooks is a physical runner who thrives off contact and can score from anywhere on the field. Unfortunately, offensive coordinator Jay Johnson seems determined to under-utilize both of them, especially Brooks. Brooks had three carries in the first half against Iowa and averaged 8 yards per carry. He had four carries on their opening drive of the second half, including their lone touchdown. He would carry the ball just three more times after that. It's a mystery why Johnson has continued to shy away from Brooks and Smith, considering they've been the most consistent players in an otherwise inconsistent offense.
With Rhoda under center, the hope is that Johnson will lean more on the running game, but I also expect the Terrapins to stack the box and force the Gophers to pass. I doubt they'll have much respect for Rhoda. So if Minnesota can't pose a threat through the air, it won't matter how much the Gophers run the ball. They won't be successful running into a wall.
TT: Who's one defensive player Maryland fans should watch out for on Saturday?
TDG: I'll go with cornerback KiAnte Hardin. Hardin was suspended prior to the second game of the season but returned against Iowa last week and provided a much-needed spark on defense. He didn't take long to make his presence known, nabbing an interception on a deep pass to the end zone early in the game. Hardin has helped shore up a previously leaky secondary. I'd also keep an eye out for linebackers Jack Lynn and Jonathan Celestin. They are the Gophers' leading tacklers on the season and they'll both be a huge part of stopping the run against the Terrapins.
TT: The Gophers sit at 3-2 and are coming off a pair of close conference losses to Penn State and Iowa. All four of Minnesota's games against FBS opponents have been decided by a single possession. What have you seen from this team compared to your preseason expectations?
TDG: It's been an up and down start to the season to say the least. Minnesota hasn't been able to deliver a complete performance. In one game, the offense has to pick up the slack for the defense. In the next game, the defense has to pick up the slack for the offense. In their last two games, they haven't been able to overcome that. Pre-snap penalties have killed the offense. Allowing huge chunks of yards has killed the defense. The biggest surprise has been how undisciplined they've been. This team leads the Big Ten in penalties. You're not going to win a lot of games when you're the best in your conference at drawing a flag.
Fans had high expectations coming into this season, with a lot of experience returning and an advantageous schedule. But the Gophers have not looked the part of a contender in the Big Ten West. At this point, even a bowl game is far from a sure bet.
TT: How important is this game for Minnesota's season?
TDG: To be honest, I think the Gophers are out of contention in the Big Ten West. With losses to Penn State and Iowa and road games at the end of the season against Nebraska and Wisconsin, I don't see them being in the conversation for a division title, barring chaos in the Big Ten West. So I don't think this is a must-win by any means, although every game could feel like a must-win for head coach Tracy Claeys' future considering how quickly the fan base has soured on him after a rough start. With that said, a road win against a Big Ten opponent would be huge for this team. It'd stop the bleeding and give them a much-needed confidence boost, because they're reeling at the moment. But I don't think a loss would be a devastating blow to their season.
TT: Complete this sentence: __________ will win because __________.
TDG: Maryland will win because I'd have to be nuts to believe this offense will be able to bounce back from last week's embarrassing performance with an inexperienced former walk-on now at quarterback. Conor Rhoda could surprise us all, but I'd be the biggest homer in college football if I expected him to light up the Terrapins' defense in his first collegiate start. The Gophers' defense, now almost at full strength minus starting linebacker Cody Poock, will keep Minnesota in the game, but I don't have much faith that the offense can put up enough points to win on the road. Maryland 21, Minnesota 14.