Maryland and Minnesota take the field at Maryland Stadium on Saturday just under a year from the day Ty Johnson pulled out a Terps win with a 34-yard touchdown run in Minneapolis for the Terps’ conference opener. The Terps were double-digit underdogs on the road last year, but they’re three-point home favorites ahead of this year’s game.
Last year, Maryland and Minnesota occupied somewhat similar places in the Big Ten’s hierarchy.
Maryland hit more low points, but both teams had problems. Maryland had its QB issues, which we certainly won’t rehash here. Minnesota had problems passing the ball too, even without injuries. Quarterback Conor Rhoda was demoted partway through the season and gave way to Demry Croft, who transferred after the regular season. Both are gone now, with true freshman Zack Annexstad behind center these days.
Minnesota’s only conference wins came over Illinois and Nebraska. Maryland’s came over Minnesota and Indiana. The Gophers’ offense was even worse than Maryland’s, ranking 120th in S&P+ to the Terps’ 113th. Like Maryland, the success Minnesota did have came on the ground. Unlike Maryland, Minnesota’s defense, No. 45 in S&P+, turned into a strength.
Maryland finished 4-8 in DJ Durkin’s Year 2. And at 5-7 in the Big Ten West, Minnesota clearly had a lot of building to do after Year 1 with P.J. Fleck.
Minnesota’s improved to start 2018, and Maryland’s own positive start isn’t far in the rear-view mirror.
The Gophers have been better than expected through three weeks. They’re outperforming their S&P+ projection by 28 spots at No. 48 Their defense ranks 11th in the nation, per S&P+, and should present a bigger challenge than it did last season.
“Last year was last year,” Taivon Jacobs told reporters Wednesday. “Things was different. Offense was different. Team was different.”
Maryland’s No. 81 overall S&P+ ranking was 29 spots higher before last week’s loss. If it can correct the offensive problems that permeated through every part of the game on Saturday, a competitive tilt should follow.
The Terps know they have to turn this ship around quickly.
Matt Canada is Maryland’s interim head coach. He might hold onto that position longer than the next few weeks. But he’s also still Maryland’s offensive coordinator, and he presided over Saturday’s disaster against Temple.
“We watched the film and I know every player certainly understood what they could have done better because there are things that could be done better,” Canada told reporters Monday. “The second play we had a guy jump, on the third play ... I mean, I can rip them off for you right now, but that’s not what I’m going to do. I called the plays; they didn’t work. That’s my fault.
“What am I going to do different? Hopefully I call better plays and obviously I hope we play better. I’m not going to sit up here and talk about who played good and you could have done better. I’m not going to do that. We didn’t play good on offense and its Matt Canada’s fault.”
Canada will be up against a defense that only allowed four yards per play against two bad teams and one good Fresno State team, and has forced five turnovers in its last two games . The unit he’ll lead against the Gophers ranks 92nd in S&P+ after last week’s debacle. It was one that couldn’t get going on the ground or through the air, which threw the idea of “balance” a bit out the window.
“To come off and feel much better about a game than we did on offense is the key,” Canada said Tuesday on the Big Ten coaches teleconference. “If that’s with great balance then that would be great, but every game is different.”
The start of Big Ten play means things won’t get any easier after this.
Maryland’s schedule is still going to be a bear, with a bye week setting up a game against Michigan on Oct. 6.
Another win over Minnesota and its strong defense would be a good litmus test for the kind of team Maryland will face in conference play. What we won’t know until Saturday is this: Will the Terps be able to correct last week’s mistakes, or will they take more figuring out?