Gophers' defense faces another tough challenge against Maryland
MINNEAPOLIS - There might be some unfinished business on Saturday when the University of Minnesota football team hosts Maryland at Huntington Bank Stadium.
The Gophers (4-2, 2-1) are seeking their third straight win after beating Purdue and Nebraska in their last two games. The Terrapins (4-2, 1-2) are coming off losses to Ohio State and Iowa. When the two teams met last year in College Park, the Gophers’ defense got embarrassed.
Taulia Tagovailoa went for 469 total yards, and five total touchdowns as Maryland beat Minnesota in overtime, 45-44. Tagovailoa passed for 394 yards and three touchdowns. The Terrapins collected 675 total yards.
"Everything revolves around the quarterback. Last year, he absolutely hurt us, he hurt us in every way possible," Gophers coach PJ Fleck said Monday.
When Tagovailoa wasn’t making big plays, Jake Funk ran through the Gophers’ defense for 221 yards and two scores. Dontay Demus and Jeshaun Jones each went for over 100 yards receiving, and had touchdowns. Luckily for Minnesota, none of those three will be on the field Saturday.
Demus is out for the season with an injury, and Jones is also hurt. Funk is in the NFL with the Chargers. Tagovailoa is back, and has more than 1,700 yards passing and 14 touchdowns in six games, but he also has eight interceptions.
"Last year was a year to learn from. Going into this year the biggest thing is we know that we can play better," rush end Boye Mafe said.
Minnesota’s defense has gained confidence over time, perhaps not highlighted more than in last Saturday’s win over Nebraska. With the Gophers leading 21-16, the Cornhuskers had four chances in the second half to take the lead. The defense stood tall with a goal line stand, a missed field goal, a turnover on downs and Adrian Martinez getting flagged for intentional grounding in the end zone, a safety.
The goal line stand might have been most impressive. Martinez was met at the goal line on 3rd-and-goal and driven back, then Tyler Nubin made the stop on 4th-and-goal after Jaquez Yant tripped behind the line of scrimmage.
"The goal line stand was amazing. To be able to be in that situation, and being on the field for stuff like that is what football is all about," Mafe said.
The Gophers limited Martinez to a career-low -17 rushing yards. They’ll have a similar task in containing Tagovailoa on Saturday.
BRYCE WILLIAMS NEW LEADER IN GOPHERS RUN GAME?
With Mo Ibrahim and Trey Potts out for the season, Bryce Williams got his first real chance in Minnesota’s run game since a big night in 2018 at Wisconsin. Williams on Saturday had 17 carries for 128 yards, including a 56-yard touchdown that gave the Gophers a 30-17 lead in the fourth quarter.
With Cam Wiley announcing earlier this week he’s leaving the program, Minnesota’s run game now goes through Williams, Mar’Keise Iriving, Ky Thomas and wildcat quarterback Cole Kramer. Irving and Thomas have a combined 46 carries for 241 yards and one touchdown.
The Gophers’ run game hasn’t missed a beat despite now being down to their "spare and air."
"It shows the commitment of that room. All those guys are ready to play, and then it comes down to the leadership in the running back room," quarterback Tanner Morgan said. "It’s guys taking advantage of opportunities. That’s what Bryce did."
The Gophers are facing a Maryland defense that allows 126 yards per game on the ground, and has given up 10 rushing touchdowns. It’s another week the offensive line has to win in the trenches, regardless of who runs the ball.
"We have to play at our best every single week. It doesn’t matter who is back there. We have to play our best, we have to get our blocks, we have to do what we have to do," Sam Schleuter said.
Saturday’s win over Nebraska marked PJ Fleck’s 30th at Minnesota. This coming Saturday, offensive lineman Conner Olson will set a school record with his 52nd straight start. The Gophers and Maryland have played seven times as Big Ten opponents. Fleck is 1-3 against the Terrapins, last winning 52-10 in 2019.