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Maryland football vs. Minnesota preview

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The Terps enter conference play 2-1 again hoping to make this year different than last.

NCAA Football: Miami (Ohio) at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland football is entering Big Ten play at 2-1 coming off a deflating loss to an AAC team for the second straight season. Temple probably won’t go on to be anywhere as good as self-proclaimed national champion UCF, but that week is over and it’s time to look ahead to Minnesota ... with one caveat.

Before the Terps even get to take the field, the findings of the Walters investigation will be released sometime Friday. There’s no telling exactly what the findings will show; little information has leaked out during the course of the investigation. One thing to remember is that this investigation is focused on the events of the May 29 workout that led to Jordan McNair falling ill and his eventual death. A second investigation into the program’s alleged “toxic culture” is expected to conclude soon as well.

As far as football goes, Maryland and Minnesota are in similar spots, and beating one another is an important step in each team’s respective quest for glory. The Golden Gophers are in Year 2 of the P.J. Fleck era. The Max Bortenschlager-led Terps spoiled his home Big Ten debut last season. In 2016, Minnesota blew Maryland out of its own stadium, 31-10, in Tyrrell Pigrome’s first start.

This year provides a chance for each team to take another step toward bowl eligibility. The Gophers are 3-0 after beating a trio of mid-majors with the defense leading the way, but more on that shortly.

Maryland and Minnesota kick off at noon on BTN Saturday in College Park.

Minnesota Golden Gophers (3-0)

2017 record: 5-7, 2-7 Big Ten

Head coach P.J. Fleck is in his second season at the helm in Minnesota; the Gophers went 5-7 in his first year. Fleck replaced Tracy Claeys, who went 11-8 in two seasons. Fleck is widely regarded as one of the best young coaches in college football. He previously led Western Michigan to a Cotton Bowl against now-Big Ten West foe Wisconsin. In his playing days as a receiver at Northern Illinois, Matt Canada was Fleck’s offensive coordinator.

Players to know

Zack Annexstad, freshman, QB, 6’3/215, No. 5. Annexstad is a true freshman walk-on ... for now. The signal caller out of IMG Academy has been poised and performed well in each of his first three starts. He’s thrown four touchdowns to no interceptions with a 56.4 percent completion rate. Those aren’t world-beating numbers by any stretch, but they’ve gotten the job done thus far.

Tyler Johnson, junior, WR, 6’2/200, No. 6. Johnson is the Gophers’ go-to guy in the passing game. In Minnesota’s three games, he’s been targeted 35 times, catching 20 balls for 283 yards and five touchdowns.

Antoine Winfield Jr., redshirt sophomore, DB, 5’10/205, No. 11. Winfield is the best player on the team. He’ll be all over the place on defense for the Gophers, much like Antoine Brooks is for the Terps. His game-sealing interception in Week 2 against Fresno State was just ... sensational.

Strength

Defense. Through three games, the Gophers rank in the top 25 in a handful of advanced statistical categories, including the top 15 in both rushing and passing marginal efficiency. This could pose a bit of a problem for Maryland, which struggled mightily on offense against Temple.

Weakness

Offensive explosiveness. The advanced stat IsoPPP measures how consistently successful an offense is and how potent it is when it’s explosive. Minnesota ranks 105th in this category, and while it’s early, one would think that it’d have more big plays against decidedly lesser competition.

Three things to watch

1. How does Maryland respond to last week’s debacle? Last Saturday was a letdown, but the feeling is that it was just a one-off and that the Terps overlooked Temple. How they come out this week could go a long way toward the season either spiraling out of control with outside factors drawing attention away from the on-field product or be an example of a team once again coming together in the face of adversity. More immediately, it would likely determine the outcome of the game.

2. Who plays? Offensive linemen Terrance Davis, Derwin Gray and Damian Prince have all been banged up and limited this season. It cost Maryland a chance at really establishing any offense last week, and could continue to hinder them going forward if the regulars aren’t available. Jake Funk is still out and Lorenzo Harrison might not play again with a hamstring issue. On defense, Adam McLean left the game and did not return last week with what appeared to be a foot or ankle injury. Canada said Monday that the plan was for all the linemen to return.

3. How does Kasim Hill respond? The Bowling Green game was written off as a limited performance due to rain and wind, but Hill’s outing against Temple was not up to standard either. He showed his potential in the Texas game, but needs to find that mojo again if he’s going to lead the Terps to victory.

Predictions

Vegas: Maryland -1.5 (O/U 47)

S&P+: Minnesota 26, Maryland 18

Me: Maryland 27, Minnesota 21