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Maryland football vs. Minnesota preview: Terps try to rebound from Penn State loss

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Kickoff’s at noon on ESPNU.

NCAA Football: Colorado State at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

After a 4-0 start and a whole lot of hype, the Maryland football team suffered its first loss of the season last week at Penn State. Now we get to see how the Terps respond.

Minnesota comes to town this Saturday, as the Terps get to face a team that’s missing its most notable player. The Gophers are bringing a two-game losing streak into this one, falling 29-26 to Penn State two weeks ago and 14-7 to Iowa last week.

The Gophers will be without starting quarterback Mitch Leidner, who suffered a concussion in the team’s loss to Iowa. In his place, former walk-on Conor Rhoda will be under center. Leidner probably isn’t going to live up to the Carson Wentz comparisons unfairly thrust upon him in the offseason, but he’s a solid quarterback. Minnesota’s going to need to make some changes to be competitive without him.

The game kicks off at noon this Saturday on ESPNU, with Beth Mowins, Anthony Becht and Rocky Boima on the call.

Minnesota Golden Gophers (3-2, 0-2 Big Ten)

2015 record: 6-7

Head coach: Tracy Claeys, 5-6 in less than one season on the job. He took over after Jerry Kill resigned due to health issues last year.

All-time record vs. Maryland: 0-1

F/+ ranking: 57 (Maryland is 45)

5-year recruiting ranking: 58 (12 in Big Ten)

Players to watch

Rodney Smith, RB, sophomore, 5’11/205, No. 1. Smith could end up being Minnesota’s most important player against Maryland. Without Leidner in, the Gophers are going to need an excellent effort from their backfield, and that starts with Smith. He averages a solid 4.8 yards per carry, though his team’s rushing attack is 100th in the country, per S&P+.

Conor Rhoda, QB, junior, 6’3/215, No. 15. We don’t know much about Rhoda, and people who say they do are damned liars who cannot be trusted. The former walk-on has only thrown two passes in his career, and it’s more probable than not that Minnesota has to switch things up considerably to account for this downgrade in talent.

Jonathan Celestin, LB, junior, 6’1/220, No. 1. Celestin is Minnesota’s leading tackler on a defense that’s 18th in the country against the run, per S&P+. He’ll need to have a big day if the Gophers want to keep the lid on Maryland running backs Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison.

Drew Wolitarsky, WR, senior, 6’3/220, No. 82. Wolitarsky is the team’s leading receiver, with 29 catches and 46 targets each tops on Minnesota by a large margin. He’s 6’3, but Maryland’s corners should be able to deal with him.

Strengths

Rushing defense. Minnesota is 18th in the country in Def. rushing S&P+, which creates an interesting matchup here. Maryland has the No. 13 rushing offense in the nation, and needs to run the ball—a lot—to be successful.

Lapses in passing defense. The Gophers’ secondary gave up two 53-yard completions, along with an 80-yarder, to Penn State, and this defense ranks 111th in opponents’ explosiveness. However, the longest completion they gave up against Iowa was for just 21 yards.

Weakness

Rushing offense. The Gophers rank 100th in the country in rushing S&P+, which is pretty bad. They’ll probably have to lean on their rushing attack a little more with Leidner out, which will be an interesting proposition for the Terps, who just allowed Penn State to rush for 372 yards.

Passing downs. When this team is forced to pass, things don’t usually end well. Minnesota’s standard downs S&P+ is 51st in the country, but the Gophers are 120th in passing downs S&P+. This doesn’t bode well for a team starting a quarterback with almost no experience.

Predictions

S&P+: Minnesota 29.1, Maryland 27.7. The Terps have a 43 percent chance of winning.

Ryan’s prediction: Maryland 28, Minnesota 21. The Terps get their fifth win of the year, meaning they could lose the next five games and would still have a shot at beating Rutgers in the season finale to gain bowl eligibility.