Maryland football opens Big Ten play Saturday afternoon when Minnesota comes to College Park. The Terps are 2-1 after being blown out by Temple this past weekend, while the Golden Gophers are 3-0 with all three wins coming over mid-majors.
These teams have split matchups the last two seasons, with Maryland winning 31-24 in Minneapolis last season. To get to know this year’s Gophers squad a little better, we brought in Blake Ruane from SB Nation’s The Daily Gopher to answer some questions. I’ll be hopping on a podcast that will appear on their site later in the week.
Testudo Times: Minnesota is 3-0 to start Year 2 under P.J. Fleck, although all three wins have come over mid-majors. What’s the vibe among Gopher fans at this point in Fleck’s tenure?
The Daily Gopher: It depends on who you ask. There are the fans who are enthusiastic about the future of the program under P.J. Fleck, but are cautiously optimistic in terms of expectations for his second year at the helm. Then there are the more casual fans who are taking more of a wait-and-see approach. They’ll get excited when Fleck gives them a reason to be excited. This is very much a fan base with trust issues, and for good reason. This program is on its fourth head coach in the last 10 years, a period during which their best season was when they finished 2nd in the Big Ten West in 2014. The Gophers haven’t even won a Big Ten Championship since the 60’s. This half century of mediocrity of course leads us into the third tier of Gopher fans, the unapologetic cynics who find it easier to believe Fleck is more of the same, rather than take another leap of faith and get burned again.
Collectively, I think the entire fan base is very interested to see how this team fares in Big Ten play.
TT: The Gophers turned heads when they named true freshman walk-on Zack Annexstad their starting QB for Week 1. How has he responded and what does he bring to the table?
TDG: He is a “walk-on” in that the sense that he is not currently on scholarship, but don’t expect that to be the case for very long. Annexstad received multiple Power 5 scholarship offers as a prospect at the IMG Academy in Florida but turned them down for the opportunity to come to Minnesota and compete for a scholarship and the starting quarterback spot. He is a Minnesota native and his father played for Minnesota in the 80’s, so being a Gopher is a dream come true for him.
As far as what he brings to the table, Annexstad is the most poised true freshman quarterback I’ve ever seen at Minnesota. He does not get rattled and makes very few mistakes. When the Gophers were in a fourth quarter fight with Fresno State, Fleck was sweating bullets on the sideline and Annexstad, after leading the Gophers on a touchdown drive for the go-ahead score, put his arm around Fleck and said, “Isn’t this fun?”
He has a good arm and throws a very accurate ball, although his deep passes down the field have been off the mark up to this point. Where he struggles is in staring down his intended target. He needs to get better at progressing to his second and third reads. His left ankle is banged up after an awkward sack early in the game against Miami (Ohio) and that limited his mobility in the pocket, but it is not expected to keep him out against Maryland.
TT: Senior running back Rodney Smith is out for the season, leaving Minnesota with little experience at running back. Who’s stepped up in his place and what are you expecting from the group going forward?
TDG: True freshman Bryce Williams is technically the Gophers’ fourth-string running back if you consider that Smith is out, Shannon Brooks is taking a redshirt season after tearing his ACL over the winter, and redshirt freshman Mohamed Ibrahim has been held out after suffering a leg injury in the season opener.
Williams didn’t find much traction in the early going against Fresno State when he was brought in to replace Smith, but he started to get comfortable in the second half. He looked like an entirely different running back the following week against Miami (Ohio), playing with vision rather than simply taking the ball and running straight ahead. Ibrahim is supposed to be back this week, so expect to see the two of them splitting carries on Saturday.
Ibrahim and Williams are certainly no Smith and Brooks, at least at this point in their careers, but it will be fun to watch them mature this season.
TT: Which player (or players) on the defensive side of the ball should Terps fans watch out for?
TDG: Redshirt sophomore defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. will be all over the field. He is the most versatile and talented athlete on defense and Gopher defensive coordinator Robb Smith likes to get creative in how he deploys Winfield in the defensive backfield. The biggest surprise has been the emergence of true freshman cornerback Terell Smith, who leads all other Minnesota defensive backs in tackles and recorded his first interception against Fresno State.
There will be at least one play, if not more, where you physically cringe upon seeing junior linebacker Thomas Barber make the tackle. There is a reason his teammates refer to him as “Thumper.” And watch out for junior rush end Carter Coughlin. He is undersized for an edge rusher but Coughlin is the textbook definition of a “high motor” player. He will be coming for Kasim Hill all game long.
TT: What would a win Saturday mean for Minnesota going forward?
TDG: A bowl game would be well within their grasp, which I know is small potatoes, but it would be a please a significant portion of our fan base that demands tangible progress from one season to the next. But I also think it would signal that this is a different team from the one we saw last year, and validate what everyone hopes to be true about this Gophers squad after an undefeated non-conference finish.
TT: Complete this sentence: ________ will win because ________.
TDG: Minnesota will win because I think this is essentially a toss-up game and anything less than a homer pick in that scenario would be considered treasonous. I think it will be a close game between two evenly matched teams. I don’t think the Maryland team we saw against Temple is the same team the Gophers will face on Saturday, but I do think that game exposed some deficiencies on offense that the Minnesota defense will need to take advantage of.