Before each Minnesota football game, GopherIllustrated will ask five questions of an opposing beat writer. This week, we spoke with Maryland beat writer Dave Lomonico of the TerrapinTimes.com (College Park, Maryland) to preview the Gophers' Week 7 away game against the Maryland Terrapins.
1) Maryland started off the year strong with four consecutive victories, but came back down to earth last week on the road against Penn State. Which Maryland team are you expecting to see against Minnesota on Saturday?
DL: Maryland should play better than they did at PSU, that's almost a guarantee. If nothing else, the mental mistakes and penalties that weren't present the first four games will be limited. The coaching staff will harp on that all week -- head coach D.J. Durkin sounded like he was going to put the fear of God into them this week -- and I expect the team to respond like they did when they got off to a 4-0 start.
But, at the same time, Penn State exposed the depth and talent concerns we sort of knew were always present. Maryland's first four opponents didn't have the firepower to take advantage, but Penn State, even a somewhat limited Penn State, was able to find the weak areas. If Minnesota can do the same, by forcing the Terps to throw the ball, sending multiple blitzes, and attacking the edges of the defense, UMD could have problems for a second straight week.
2) Terrapin quarterback Perry Hills was knocked out of the game against Penn State, but appears to be back for the game this weekend. How key of a player is Hills for this Maryland offense and what are his strengths?
DL: Hills should be OK for this week's game, though you never know. If he can't play, it'll be up to freshman Ty "Piggy" Pigrome, who is a tough guy and can make plays with his feet, but is still progressing as a passer.
Hills is a senior, typically makes smart decisions and is known for his toughness and leadership qualities. He's a rugged, blue-collar guy whose intangibles seem to rub off on his teammates.
Physically, he's a tough runner and won't shy away from putting his shoulder down and plunging for extra yards. He likes to run the zone read and then keep the ball and shoot forward for positive yards. But, like Pigrome, he's had some issues in the passing game. Hills doesn't have the strongest arm around and has trouble completing passes downfield. He does his best work in the short to intermediate range, completing safe throws and letting his receivers go to work.
For the first four games, Hills effectively managed the offense, took what the defense gave him and didn't turn the ball over. Penn State forced his hand a bit, however, so we'll see if he reverts to pre-Nittany Lions form or continues to have issues moving forward.
3) The Maryland running game is averaging 274 yards a game on 6.0 yards per carry through five games, but were "shut down" last week against Penn State as they only went for 170. Is the key for Minnesota's defense to shut down the running game?
DL: Yes, the key for any opponent is to key on Maryland's running game and force them to beat you through the air. Neither Perry Hills nor backup Tyrrell Pigrome have proven they can stretch the defense and make plays down the field. Almost all of their big pass plays have been the result of short dumpoffs that Maryland's receivers/backs have been able to turn into long gains. So, for defenses, the main idea is to watch the backs coming out of the backfield and to load the box and force the Terps' quarterbacks to make something happen.
4) On defense, Maryland defenders Jesse Aniebonam and Jermaine Carter look like two players to watch. What are their games like and who are some other names to watch for on defense for Maryland?
DL: Aniebonam plays the BUCK role at Maryland, which is the most important spot on the defense. He's expected to rush, set the edge and cover in space. As his position suggests, he's a versatile defender with size, speed and athleticism, not to mention a very good football IQ. Aniebonam is someone who is always in position to make a play and will typically be somewhere in the vicinity of the ball on most downs.
Carter isn't the fastest linebacker out there, and he's not a sideline to sideline guy, but he gets the job done. He's instinctive, reads well and has a sense for how a play will develop. Plus, he's a thumper and gets downhill in a hurry. He excels at corralling backs in the gaps and catching runners in the open before they can burst into the secondary. Carter can be exposed in pass defense, however, and, again, he's not going to take down a runner across the field, but he's a solid MIKE.
The other defenders to watch for are 1) senior defensive lineman Roman Braglio, who is a blue-collar plugger and consistently gets the job done up front. 2) Transfer CB J.C. Jackson, who was a former five-star recruit and is the team's most talented and NFL-ready player. He's a true lockdown corner. 3) LB Shane Cockerille is a converted quarterback/fullback who has come on during his final season as a linebacker. He's the team's leading tackler. 4) Slot corner Will Likely is the squad's most heady defender and a true playmaker. He's only 5-8 and isn't particularly fast, but he's quick and always around the football.
5) What are the keys for Maryland if they're going to beat the Gophers at home, and what's your score prediction for the Minnesota vs. Maryland game, and why?
DL: The keys for Maryland are to establish the running game early and often. For this team to succeed, they need to keep running the football. That way, it'll take pressure off the quarterbacks and allow them to attempt to make plays down the field. Maryland has to be able to take shots to keep defenses honest, but, fact is, the Terps may not be able to complete said shots unless the running game is humming.
Secondly, the Terps have to hold up at the line of scrimmage. I believe Minnesota has a fairly stout front, and the Terps' offensive line has to continue generating a push and at least hold its own against them.
Defensively, it comes down to the front seven flying to the football and wrapping up. Last week, Penn State won the battle in the trenches and pushed the Terps around all game. Maryland's depth and talent level, combined with the fundamental lapses, weren't enough to penetrate the line and to stymie elite RB Saquon Barkley.
As for a prediction, I'm never very good at these so take my word with a grain of salt. I do believe Maryland will bounce back and play better, and since they're at home the game should be close. But looking at how Minnesota played Penn State and comparing it to how Maryland performed, I'm skeptical the Terps escape with a victory. I think Minnesota, after close losses to PSU and Iowa, could very well get over the hump this week. With Leidner likely out though, I'll take Maryland.
Prediction: Maryland 23, Minnesota 17