Minnesota football has been one of the more surprising stories of the 2019 season, as a program that finished 7-6 a year ago has won its first seven games.
In 2018, it was a 3-0 Golden Gopher team that visited College Park and left with its first loss —a 42-13 dismantling by the Terrapins. In fact, Minnesota head coach PJ Fleck has yet to beat Maryland, as the Terps came away with a 31-24 win on the road in 2017.
Here is a look at what to expect from Minnesota this weekend.
A whole lot of RPO sets
Fleck’s offense is predominantly run, pass option sets, as it feeds perfectly off of the Gophers’ strong run game — which we’ll get to shortly — to keep defenses balanced.
The biggest staple of the pass game in an RPO-offense is the slant route. Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan has completed 66.45 percent of his passes for 16 touchdowns and just three interceptions, mostly thanks to the lack of a need to make potentially risky throws.
When defenses face this type of offense, there is a tendency to fall into habit and try to cut corners. Against Purdue, Morgan took advantage of this by giving a hard shoulder-fake that made the Boilermaker defender believe he was passing a slant.
As the defender tries to jump the supposed slant, it gives the receiver he’s covering an advantage thanks to speed and makes this an easy play for the quarterback.
Not falling victim to guessing and remaining in front of an RPO-dominant offense is key so that a defense can limit any big plays.
Rodney Smith is the heart of the offense
Rodney Smith — a redshirt senior — is back running free for Minnesota after suffering a season-ending injury just two games into the 2018 season.
He currently stands with 5,014 all-purpose yards for his career as a Golden Gopher, and could become the school’s all-purpose record holder with 95 yards against the Terps on Saturday.
Smith is a tough runner who uses his 5’11, 210-pound frame and lower body strength to power through and shake off tacklers. His combination of strength and speed is part of the reason he has tallied 576 yards and five rushing touchdowns in Minnesota’s last four games.
The Golden Gophers have used his experience and athleticism in some designed plays, including a direct-snap touchdown run at the goal line against Purdue. Containing Smith and neutralizing the run game is a huge factor when trying to disrupt a run, pass option team.
Pass rush is the biggest defensive strength
While Minnesota had to grind through some close games early on in the season, its team defense has been instrumental in making a difference, and it all starts up front.
The Golden Gophers utilize the blitz well, and their front seven really disrupts offenses by putting pressure on opponents fast. Defensive coordinator Joseph Rossi’s defense has tallied 17 sacks and 34 tackles for loss so far this season.
Minnesota’s defense runs a mixture of sets that use both three and four down lineman, making things sometimes difficult for offenses to read. Even without blitzing though, the Golden Gophers are outstanding at putting pressure on and making things difficult for quarterbacks.
Withstanding pressure is the key to making plays
When facing a tough front seven, it’s key to have a quarterback that works well under pressure in order to succeed.
Maryland hasn’t revealed whether Josh Jackson or Tyrrell Pigrome will handle the bulk of the quarterbacking duties. Pigrome’s athleticism has made him more adept at evading pressure and extending plays, but Jackson is probably the Terps’ best passer.
With an offensive line as banged up as Maryland’s, it will be important to note how long whoever is quarterback will consistently have to get rid of the ball in order to tailor the game plan.
If there seems to be enough time to stand in and make throws, Jackson would certainly be the guy to put in, while if constant pressure forces collapsing pockets, Pigrome may be the guy to put out there to make plays with his feet.
After navigating pressure or escaping the front seven, the Golden Gophers’ defense hasn’t been quite been as difficult to break. Minnesota defensive backs often drop back into zone coverage, leaving space for receivers to find soft spots and set up for catch and run plays.
Even in the run game, if Maryland can get past the second level, whoever is in at running back should be able to hit some big plays.
One way Maryland can use its athleticism to its advantage is through mismatches in the passing game. As seen against Fresno State, a combination of motions before the play and routes out to the side allowed for a running back to be covered by a linebacker right down the middle of the defense. These types of coverage mismatches should be a staple of the Maryland offense, as it gives the Terps a chance to win one-on-one battles.
The bottom line
While Minnesota is 7-0, the reason it stands at just No. 17 in the nation is because of its strength of schedule — or lack thereof.
The Golden Gophers won their first four matchups — against South Dakota State, Fresno State, Georgia Southern and Purdue — by a combined 20 points. In their last three games, however, they’ve outscored Illinois, Nebraska and Rutgers 116-31.
Many teams could get distracted by facing an unbeaten team and write off any hopes of winning, but Minnesota is a team that Maryland could very easily beat in terms of overall team-athleticism.
For the Terrapins, a win will result from being able to keep the their offense and its playmakers on the field, and limiting the chances for Minnesota to try and wear down the Maryland defense.