Maryland hosts Minnesota Oct. 15, and to gain more insight into the Golden Gophers, we spoke to GopherIllustrated.com publisher Ryan Burns. Our question-and-answer session with him is below:
Terrapin Times: Since this is the first time Maryland has played Minnesota, is there any "novelty" surrounding this game for the players or the fans? Any curiosity about taking on a Big Ten team on the East Coast?
Ryan Burns: I think there is some novelty as this is Minnesota's first trip out to the East Coast since Maryland was added to the Big Ten. There is some curiosity as well as it's been a long time since the Gophers and Terrapins have played, but Gopher fans right now are a frustrated bunch. Minnesota's lost two extremely winnable Big Ten games and fans are going to need to see a win on Saturday or else it could be ugly.
TT: Do you see Minnesota fans traveling out to see this game since it's a chance to see D.C., etc.? Since these teams don't play often, would more Gophers aficionados be apt to take the flight East?
RB: Again, with Minnesota coming off two tough losses to start Big Ten play, the luster of this 2016 season is starting to wear off, so not sure how many Gopher fans you'll see in College Park. If Minnesota had won one, or even both games, I think you'd see a much larger contingent of Gopher fans on Saturday.
TT: Maryland did not play so well against Penn State last week, but Minnesota gave the Nittany Lions a fight. Based on that, is this Minnesota team better than perceived after two tight losses? Or are they playing above their head and there are still some holes that need shoring up?
RB: Minnesota's a much better team than what they've shown the last two weeks. The Gopher offense on Saturday was stuck in neutral for the entire game as quarterback Mitch Leidner had one of his worst games of his career, and Minnesota decided they wanted to abandon the run in a tight game, even though that's been their offense the entire season. The offense had been firing on all cylinders coming into the Iowa game putting up 36 points a game, but just never could get anything going on Saturday.
The Gopher defense, on the other hand, which had been struggling coming into the Iowa game, finally was able to start to turn the corner. They forced three turnovers and held Iowa in check all game, but were just on the field for too long as Minnesota's offense kept going three and out. Defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel got two key defensive backs back for Iowa in KiAnte Hardin and Ray Buford, and both played well. I anticipate the defense you saw on Saturday to be the one fans see for the majority of the season going forward.
If Minnesota can get their offense, defense and special teams all firing on the same day, this is a Gopher team to watch out for. But the issue is that hasn't happened yet in 2016.
TT: How have Minnesota fans taken to Tracy Claeys as the head coach after he took over for Jerry Kill? Do they feel like he's an extension of Kill, or are they in more of a wait and see mode with him?
RB: Fans are a little testy with Claeys right now as Minnesota's lost a couple of games they had multiple opportunities to win, but, as I'm telling them, let's see what happens here for the rest of the 2016 season. Minnesota's been very close to grabbing two Big Ten victories, but they have to start converting on those chances or else that seat is going to start getting toasty.
TT: What are the main strengths of this Minnesota team, and what areas need improving moving forward to succeed in the Big Ten?
RB: The strengths so far for Minnesota is on both sides of the running game. Coming into the Iowa game on Saturday, Minnesota was averaging 228 yards a game on the ground, and they have a few different talented running backs. Sophomores Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith are the two headliners, and you may even see Kobe McCrary get a few carries as well.
On the defensive side of the ball, Minnesota's run defense has been much improved from last season, as they held Saquon Barkley to 38 yards on 19 carries heading into overtime last week, and are only allowing 3.6 YPC against them on the season.
Both sides of the passing game are where things need to continue to take steps forward. Prior to getting KiAnte Hardin and Ray Buford back from suspension, Minnesota was giving up multiple big plays in the passing game in each game, but Iowa didn't have any success on Saturday there. The Gophers have still given up nine touchdowns through the air on the season.
On offense, Minnesota needs to find some help for wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky, the Gophers' leading receiver. Tight end Brandon Lingen has been out with a broken collarbone and Minnesota misses that vertical element in the passing game without him. Iowa was able to force Leidner into some poor throws on Saturday, and they'll need a bounce back performance from him if they are going to win on the road.
TT: Who are Minnesota's X factors, and who are a couple under the radar contributors to watch out for?
RB: Shannon Brooks is Minnesota's best weapon on offense, and he's been struggling to get more than 15 touches in his last three games. He's averaging more than six yards a carry on his career, and needs to be featured more going forward. Rodney Smith has started well in 2016 as he's got 446 yards on 4.8 YPC and five rushing scores. Between Smith and Brooks, they need to be getting close to 20 touches every week.
Steven Richardson has been absolutely dominant on the Gophers' defensive line, and the stats don't show how great he's been. Richardson has six tackles for loss and two sacks, but he's constantly getting penetration into the backfield, and that allows players in the back seven to make plays for him. He'll be huge in trying to shut down that potent Maryland rushing game on Saturday.