After a promising 2-0 start to the season, Maryland football is in freefall.
The Terps have dropped two games in a row and four of their last five, including a 34-28 home loss to Indiana last time out.
“[The work ethic] needs to be where it was back at the beginning of the season, where the hunger was,” sophomore tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo said. “We tell each other we need to go hard, we need to keep going harder and keep on keeping on. ... We got to just have a steady rise and grind out the season.”
The schedule isn’t getting any more lenient, as they’ll face an undefeated No. 17 Minnesota squad on the road in Minneapolis this weekend.
Saturday’s game is slated to start at 3:30 p.m. ET and will be televised on ESPN.
Minnesota Golden Gophers (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten)
2018 record: 7-6 (3-6 Big Ten)
Head coach P.J. Fleck is in his third season with the Golden Gophers after a very successful tenure at Western Michigan, where he spent five years building up the program. After a lean first campaign in Minneapolis, Fleck took the team to a bowl game victory over Georgia Tech last year following a regular season-ending upset of Wisconsin.
Now, he’s in charge of an undefeated team — albeit mostly against opponents that are FCS or under .500 — that could make a run at a divisional title.
“If you’ve ever had a chance to meet P.J Fleck, I think that team has really taken on his personality in that they’re high energy guys, they play really smart, really clean and really disciplined in all three phases,” Maryland head coach Mike Locksley said on Tuesday. “When you look at their record, they’re undefeated. How they’ve played, who they’ve played to me really doesn’t matter and that’s what where the confidence comes from. I do believe when you watch them they’re playing with a great amount of confidence.”
Players to know
Tanner Morgan, redshirt sophomore quarterback, 6’2, 215 lbs, No. 2. Morgan took over as the starting signal caller for the Golden Gophers midway through the 2018 season, and after a strong summer, he was named the full-time starter for this year. He’s been terrific thus far, completing 101-of-152 (66.5 percent) attempts for 1,623 yards (third in the Big Ten) with 16 touchdowns (T-2nd) and just three interceptions.
Rodney Smith, redshirt senior running back, 5’11, 210 lbs, No. 1. Smith was a three-year starter for Minnesota entering 2018, his final year with the program — or so he thought. After starting the first two games of the season, he went down with a season-ending injury. Taking advantage of the new NCAA redshirt rule, Smith decided to come back for one last go-around.
So far, it’s been a great decision, as he ranks third in the Big Ten with 786 rushing yards. Smith’s scored six touchdowns on the ground thus far, and he’s also added five catches for 58 yards.
“We played against him a couple years back,” senior defensive lineman Oluwaseun Oluwatimi said Tuesday. He’s a really good back, he’s very patient and he’ll find the hole. So we got to be disciplined with what we do on the defensive side of the ball and staying in our gaps.”
Rashod Bateman, sophomore wide receiver, 6’2, 210 lbs, No. 13. Batemen turned in one of the best freshman seasons in program history in 2018, racking up 51 catches for 704 yards — both school records — while scoring six touchdowns. As a sophomore, he’s on pace to shatter last year’s production, as he already has 28 catches for 605 yards and five touchdowns through seven games.
Tyler Johnson, senior wide receiver, 6’2, 205 lbs, No. 6. Johnson has been one of the best receivers in the history of Minnesota football, as he ranks in the top-five of all receiving categories. He’s coming off an insane year where he broke school records with 1,169 yards and 12 scores. In his final season with the team, Johnson is putting in another strong campaign, catching 39 passes for 589 yards and six touchdowns.
Passing offense. Minnesota hasn’t blown people away with raw numbers in the air — the Golden Gophers rank eighth in the conference in passing yards per game with 231.9. However, they are second in the Big Ten in passing efficiency with a mark of 186.9, placing behind only Ohio State (192.3). That’s due to a terrific touchdown-to-interception ratio of 5.3:1 and 10.7 yards per attempt.
Special teams. As an undefeated squad, the Golden Gophers don’t have many deficiencies. But the one glaring issue thus far for Minnesota has been its special teams. It ranks 13th in the conference with 37 net yards per punt, and its 57.1 conversion rate on field goals puts the team 11th in the Big Ten.
Three things to watch
1. Who will start at quarterback for Maryland? In Tyrrell Pigrome’s two starts this season, the Terps have been outscored by a 74-42 margin, losing to Purdue and Indiana. Now, that’s not all Pigrome, but he’s struggled to get into a rhythm as a passer while Josh Jackson has been injured. The latter has reportedly practiced in full this week as he recovers from a high-ankle sprain, but Locksley has yet to name a starter.
“[Jackson] and Piggy are both taking first team reps, and Tyler’s (DeSue) kind of sprinkled in there some,” Locksley said. “I think the extra rest that [Jackson] got with last week being the emergency third for us will benefit us, but we’ll make that decision as to the starter as we get closer to the game time based on how those guys practice this week and how they perform. And then that’s kind of how we’ll go.”
2. Does Anthony McFarland Jr. contribute? Like Jackson, McFarland has been dealing with an ankle sprain, and he was forced to miss last week’s loss to the Hoosiers. Javon Leake filled his shoes very well, rushing for 158 yards on 23 carries while adding two touchdowns. McFarland is the best running back on the team, but given Leake’s success, he could be scaled back considerably in the near future.
3. Will Tanner Morgan and Co. be contained at all? In case you missed it, Maryland’s secondary has been quite bad this season — the Terps are worst in the conference in passing yards per game surrendered.
To make matters worse, Maryland has had no pass rush to speak of since the start of the season, and beating Minnesota’s offensive line won’t be an easy task. If the Terps’ pass rushers can’t get to Morgan, he will have free reign to make throws to Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson.
“Well, I guess we’re last in the conference in pass defense, so it’ll be one hell of a test,” Locksley said. “My expectation is that we’ll do some things from a gameplan standpoint to help, obviously. But there’s a double-edged sword with what we want to do ... we want to be aggressive.”
Vegas: Minnesota -16.5, O/U 58 (as of Thursday night)
ESPN FPI: Maryland 17.2% chance to win
Me: Minnesota 34, Maryland 14