After a 2-1 start to the 2017 season, Maryland football begins Big Ten play Saturday at Minnesota.
That sentence wouldn’t have surprised anyone a month ago. But the way the Terps got here—beating Texas, then losing to UCF, with devastating injuries in the process—leaves Maryland fans more worried about their team than expected.
This meeting was supposed to be about the clash of the young coaches, as DJ Durkin and P.J. Fleck are trying to build their respective programs to new heights. Maryland and Minnesota have become annual crossover opponents between the Big Ten’s divisions, and the matchup will continue every season through at least 2021. Since the only meeting before last year was in 1977, we can’t call it a rivalry at the moment, but these coaches are capable of making it happen.
However, most conversations about Saturday’s game begin and end with the Maryland question mark under center. The Terps have lost Tyrrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill to season-ending ACL injuries in the season’s first three games. The new starter, Max Bortenschlager, looked overwhelmed in relief action, going 15-for-26 Saturday with two interceptions and five sacks.
Saturday’s game kicks off at noon ET (that’s 11 a.m. CT) on FS1.
Minnesota Golden Gophers (3-0)
2016 record: 9-4, 5-4 Big Ten
Head coach P.J. Fleck. One of the most energetic presences in college football rowed his boat from Western Michigan to the Gophers this offseason. Fleck finished 30-22 with the Broncos, including a 13-1 season and Cotton Bowl appearance last year. He’s better known for his catchphrases (“Row The Boat” is written on every page of Minnesota’s game notes) than for his coaching, although continued success should balance that. As our friend Alex Kirshner describes, “if you dressed a can of red bull in maroon, you’d get Fleck.”
Players to know
Rodney Smith, RS junior, RB, 5’11/210, No. 1. He’s the workhorse in the backfield for the Gophers, tallying 275 yards on 69 carries so far this season. Smith hasn’t gotten in the end zone a bunch—just one score this year, while rotational backs Shannon Brooks and Kobe McCrary have four and three, respectively—but Maryland knows he’s capable of doing so. Smith scorched Maryland for 144 yards and two touchdowns last October.
Conor Rhoda, RS senior, QB, 6’3/225, No. 15. After making a spot start in College Park last season, Rhoda is at the top of Minnesota’s depth chart this year. The Gophers haven’t relied on him much, as he’s thrown just 46 passes, but he’s been effective.
Jonathan Celestin, senior, LB, 6’1/232, No. 13. After a 10-start, 80-tackle campaign in 2016, Celestin has recorded 20 total tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss in Minnesota’s first three games. He’s been all over the field, notching two pass breakups, two quarterback hits and a fumble recovered.
Defense. Minnesota has allowed just 24 points in three games, good for the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense. While the competition hasn’t been Big Ten-caliber, the Gophers’ defense still sits 15th in S&P+, and they’ll present Bortenschlager with a daunting test.
Offensive explosiveness. The Gophers’ plodding offense isn’t built to light up Big Ten scoreboards. Minnesota runs the ball 73 percent of the time, ranks 111th in the country in adjusted pace and is 123rd in offensive IsoPPP, which means it’s not an explosive unit. The Gophers haven’t trailed for a single second this season, but there are reasonable concerns if they fall behind.
Three things to watch
1. What does Maryland get from its quarterback(s)? Bortenschlager is the guy. Caleb Henderson, the UNC transfer who took first-team reps all spring but has been sidelined almost ever since, will be the backup, with Ryan Brand next in line. This is the first time Maryland has spent a whole week tailoring a game plan to Bortenschlager’s strengths, so although his first seven quarters of extended action haven’t looked too promising, there’s reason to expect a step forward on Saturday.
2. How creative will the offense be? Maryland thrived on big plays in its first two contests, and when the Terps couldn’t gain yardage in big chunks against UCF, the offense ultimately stagnated. Minnesota’s defense ranks 7th in defensive IsoPPP, which means it isn’t surrendering those explosive plays. Bortenschlager isn’t exactly the type to create those gains, so don’t be surprised if Walt Bell brings back the wildcat formation or rolls out something we haven’t seen from the Terps yet this year.
3. Can the Terps stop Minnesota’s ground game? They couldn’t last year, when the Gophers totaled 229 rushing yards and Smith scored twice in a 31-10 win. Maryland’s run defense looked formidable against Texas and Towson, but far from it against UCF, as the Knights ran for 250 yards on 39 attempts. If the Terps can slow down the running backs and make Rhoda beat them, they’ll have given themselves a chance.
S&P+: Minnesota 29, Maryland 22
Me: Minnesota 27, Maryland 17