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Maryland football vs. Minnesota preview

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The Terps are in need of a big response on the field after their bye week.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

After securing four straight wins and then dropping its last two games, Maryland football will gear up to face the Minnesota Golden Gophers on Oct. 23. The Terps are coming off their bye week and haven’t played since Oct. 9 in the program’s loss to the then-No. 7 Ohio State.

“Obviously coming off of a big win over Nebraska, they’ve won four of their last five games,” head coach Michael Locksley said about Minnesota. “When you look at their depth chart, they’re very senior-laden, grad-laden program which, you know, you have that type of experience and especially with the type of program they have, it’ll be a great challenge for us.”

It’s been a season of highs and lows for the Terps as Locksley’s team captured its best start since the 2016 season to kick off the year. However, two straight crushing losses to two very talented programs in Iowa and Ohio State put a dent in Maryland’s momentum before the bye week.

“Getting a lot of guys back from injury, we got to get more healthy and just look at the film from the last two games we played and just get better and focus on the things that we weren’t doing well,” senior defensive back Jordan Mosley said about the team’s bye week.

Maryland now sits with a 4-2 record, but with just a 1-2 record in Big Ten play. The Terps are ahead of just two other teams in the Big Ten East, as they are ahead of the likes of Indiana and Rutgers.

“I told our team, we sit here 4-2 and if somebody told us at the beginning of the year that we’d have a chance to be 4-2 at the halfway point, I think every one of us would be pretty happy with it,” Locksley said.

The upcoming game against the Golden Gophers will happen in Minneapolis on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. and will be aired on ESPN2.

Let’s take a look at Maryland’s seventh opponent of the 2021 season.

Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten)

2020 season: (3-4, 3-3 Big Ten)

Head coach P.J. Fleck has been at the helm of the Golden Gophers since 2017 and he has a career record of 30-21 record as the head coach. Fleck led Minnesota to its most wins in 2019 with 11 total victories, its most wins since 1904. In that season, the Golden Gophers had seven Big Ten victories for the first time in school history and the program also beat two top-10 teams. During the 2020 season, Fleck guided Minnesota to three wins in four games.

Fleck has done an excellent job with this program, and even after losing star running back Mohamed Ibrahim to injury earlier this season, Minnesota has done well so far in 2021. Even though it suffered a Week One loss to Ohio State, Fleck’s team has ripped off four wins in its last five games.

Players to know

Redshirt senior quarterback Tanner Morgan, 6-foot-2, No. 2 — Morgan has had a somewhat questionable season at best for Minnesota, despite the program winning four of its first six games to start off the season. Only once has he had over 20 completions in a single game, and his season-high in passing yards is just 209, which came in the Golden Gopher’s most recent win over Nebraska. He also has four interceptions this season in what has been a very run-heavy offense for Minnesota. He’ll be a player that Maryland needs to contain come Saturday, despite his lack of a breakout this year.

Redshirt senior wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell, 6-foot-1, No. 7 — With Minnesota’s two top running backs going down with injuries, all of a sudden the Golden Gophers may lean a little more on the passing game. And if they do, look for Autman-Bell to get a ton of looks from Morgan. Autman-Bell has had at least 40 yards in the four games that he has played in this season, and he has two touchdowns in his last two games. He added 11 catches for 103 yards and a touchdown last game against Nebraska, and he’ll be a big factor against Maryland.

Graduate student linebacker Jack Gibbens, 6-foot-4, No. 47 — If there’s anyone to point to on this Minnesota defense heading into Saturday’s game, then Gibbens is one of the standouts on this roster. Gibbens, who has a massive frame standing at 6-foot-4 and weighing 245 pounds, has the most tackles on the team with 38. He also leads the Golden Gophers in solo tackles with 22, five more than the next best player on the team. Gibbens is a threat from just about anywhere and he has also racked up three pass breakups and one forced fumble.

Strength

Run defense. Minnesota has been great this year defending the ground game. Through six games in 2021, Minnesota’s run defense is the second-best in the Big Ten with allowing just 86.8 rushing yards per game in 2021, and the program is the runner-up to Wisconsin, a team that allows 64.3 rushing yards per game. The Golden Gophers’ defense concedes just 3.1 yards per rush and Maryland will certainly have a tough time moving the ball on the ground against this solid defensive front.

Weakness

Passing offense. If Maryland’s defense can contain the Golden Gophers’ passing game, then Minnesota might have trouble moving the ball with efficiency. The Golden Gophers are ranked as the second-worst passing offense in the conference with just 153.8 passing yards per contest. The Terps’ secondary has been banged up as of late, but a weaker opponent in the passing game could get this defense back on track when Saturday rolls around.

Three things to watch

1. Can Minnesota’s strong run game overcome its recent injury woes? The Golden Gophers are entering this matchup against the Terps with an average of just over 190 rushing yards per game. However, even though they lost Ibrahim to a season-ending injury right out of the gates, second string back Trey Potts, who has been a standout on offense with six touchdowns, has also just been ruled out for the rest of the season. It’s another tough blow to Minnesota, and it has been reported that the Golden Gophers will resort to a running back by committee scheme moving forward. It’s unknown how lethal this ground game will remain without Potts leading the way anymore.

2. Will the Terps’ offense find their stride? Maryland’s offense looked like one of the conference’s best after the opening four games of the season. But the last two games have been underwhelming for quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa and the rest of the offense as it has been quite the different story. Maryland hasn’t eclipsed the 20-point mark since its win over Kent State on Sept. 25, and it has only scored 31 combined points in its last two contests. Jeshaun Jones has now also been ruled out for the season, which is another big blow to this offense. Keep an eye on the Terps’ rushing attack in this one, as that aspect of the offense hasn't had much of a chance in two straight big losses.

“I would say the No. 1 thing that probably went wrong the last two weeks offensively is just beating ourselves,” senior tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo said. “These past two weeks we struggled a lot, but a lot of the time it’s not really even been what the other team is doing, it’s just been what we weren’t doing and just not executing plays... and having turnovers.”

3. Will Maryland get back on track after its timely bye week? Coming into the bye, Maryland suffered two straight blowout defeats to Iowa and then Ohio State. In those two games, Maryland was outscored 117-31. Granted, the Terps were dealing with major injuries to their defense and they are not at full strength with the continued absence of star wide receiver Dontay Demus Jr., who is already ruled out for the remainder of the season with an injury. This is a big game for Maryland that will determine how the team will trend for the second half of the season. If the program wants to reach the six-win mark, this game is as close to a must-win as it gets, with three of the program’s remaining six matchups coming against teams currently in the AP Top 25 poll.

“We’re hoping that we can, again, start the second half of the season the right way,” Locksley said. “I feel our best football is still ahead of us. We’ve got a lot of work to do. But I’ve been really encouraged by this team and the way we practice, the way they play to the standard.”