The Minnesota Golden Gophers fell for the first time this season at home to the Maryland Terrapins 31-24 in their Big Ten opener. To add insult to injury, third-string quarterback Max Bortenschlager led the way for Maryland with 154 yards and two touchdowns in his first start.
“We didn’t deserve to win the football game, simple,” said head coach P.J. Fleck after the game. “When you look at why and how we win football games, that was flipped over on us tonight, and that’s the result.”
The mental errors destroyed the Gophers, from the opening kick — which sailed out of bounds to give the Terrapins the ball on the 35-yard line — all the way to the last play on offense, a Conor Rhoda interception to seal the game for the Terrapins.
From start to finish, the Gophers could not get out of their own way and could only muster 10 points in the first half. The first problem for the Gophers that leapt off the field was the tackling. Both running backs Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison III slid past Gophers tacklers and bounced off numerous defenders, turning what should have been tackles for loss into five-, 10- and 15-yard gains. While injuries like Duke McGhee sitting out or Antoine Winfield Jr. leaving the field on Maryland’s first drive contributed to the defensive problems, the team’s front seven needed to wrap up and tackle.
Instead, the Gophers gave up 262 yards on the ground.
Special teams also suffered mental errors, kicking the ball out of bounds several times with a missed field goal. On offense, the struggle continued, with dropped passes and an interception in the red zone. Wide receiver Tyler Johnson had two drops and zero catches in the first half, with a pass bouncing off his hands and leading Rhoda’s first interception.
“We turned the ball over 2-0, that’s the game right there. Special teams missed opportunities, whether it’s a kickoff, field position, whether it’s a field goal. We throw a pick in the red zone, didn’t win time of possession, didn’t do well on third down…altogether we didn’t deserve to win the football game,” said Fleck of a disappointing showing from his team. “In the Big Ten, there might be one or two teams that cannot play their best football and still win, and we aren’t there yet.”
The biggest problem was the Gophers rushing attack — which never did get off the ground — finishing with just 80 total yards. Yet again, the little miscues were the problem. Missed blocks on the inside, tight ends not chipping edge rushers or ill-played gap assignments, all of it led up to both Gophers running backs Rodney Smith or Shannon Brooks failing to top 50 yards on the ground. They also persistently ran read option runs inside, but Rhoda never pulled the ball. Run after run, Brooks and Smith would bang into the line for a couple yards, while Rhoda kept passing up open back-side opportunities. He never kept the defense honest by pulling and running until the fourth quarter. He needs to make those reads sooner and the running game needs to find more creativity than depending on the backs to make their own blocks.
“I trust (Brooks) and (Smith) so much that I want the ball in their hands,” said Rhoda on the read option. “When they show me a read that is a definite keep, I’m going to keep it, but it’s a lot up for discretion.”
In the second half, the Gophers gave up 14 points in the fourth quarter for the first points that the defense has let up in the second half all season long. In the second half, Rhoda finally connected with Johnson on long passes of 17, 25 and 27 yards, but the team still could not find stops on defense. While the Gophers were able to tie the game at 24-all with two minutes left, the final plays summed up the game for the Gophers.
To finish off the game, Johnson ran a 34-yard touchdown straight up the gut to give Maryland a 31-24 lead. On the kick return, Brooks buffed on a short kick return and was tackled at his own 4-yard line. After two plays, Rhoda threw his second interception — to Terrapins defensive back J.C. Jackson — to seal the deal on the loss.
“We didn’t play well in all three categories. Offensively we turned the ball over too much, special teams kicked the ball out of bounds and defensively we don’t tackle very well,” said Fleck on the areas needing work on his team. “But that falls all on me, that is 100 percent my responsibility and we got to get them better.”
The Gophers need to get healthy and get back to the little things, because these errors killed the Gophers against Maryland. Getting back to the fundamentals is the task at hand for Minnesota before it heads out to face Purdue on Oct. 7.
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