Minnesota (3-2) vs. Maryland (4-1)
Time: 11:00 A.M. CT, Saturday, October 15th
TV: ESPNU - Beth Mowins (Play by Play), Anthony Becht (Analyst) and Rocky Bolman (Sideline)
Last week: Minnesota lost 14-7 to Iowa, and Maryland lost 38-14 to Penn State
All-time series: Maryland lead the series 1-0 (Maryland won 17-7 in the Hall of Fame Bowl in December 1977)
Vegas betting line: Maryland (-7)
Know Your Enemy: Five questions with Maryland publisher Dave Lomonico
Five things you need to know
1. Minnesota travels to Maryland on Saturday for a game against the Terrapins. It will mark the first conference game between the two Big Ten opponents, but is not the first meeting between the two schools. Minnesota and Maryland have played once before, at the 1977 Hall of Fame Bowl in Birmingham, Ala. The game was contested on Dec. 22 and the Terrapins won 17-7. Minnesota’s lone points came in the first quarter when Marion Barber rushed for a 1-yard touchdown. Maryland played its first Big Ten football game in 2014 and is 6-12 in league play since becoming a member.
2. Minnesota will host Maryland in 2017 and will also host new Big Ten member Rutgers next week on Oct. 22 for Homecoming. After Maryland and Rutgers play at TCF Bank Stadium, that means the only Big Ten team to not play a game at TCF Bank Stadium will be Indiana. The Hoosiers are not slated to visit TCF Bank Stadium - which opened in 2009 - until Oct. 27, 2018. The Hoosiers were however the last team that Minnesota beat at the Metrodome (16-7 on Oct. 4, 2008) before the Gophers moved to their on-campus stadium.
3. Minnesota lost 14-7 to Iowa last Saturday, but allowed only one touchdown to the Hawkeyes (Iowa kicked two field goals and converted a two-point play on its touchdown). It was the first time that Minnesota allowed only one touchdown in a Big Ten game since it beat Penn State 24-10 at home on Nov. 9, 2013 (span of 19 games). The 14 points allowed by Minnesota were the fewest in a Big Ten game since it beat Purdue 41-13 (Purdue points came off of two touchdowns) on the road on Oct. 10, 2015.
4. Through five games, Minnesota has had three running backs record 100-yard games in Rodney Smith (125 vs Oregon State, 104 at Penn State), Shannon Brooks (100 at Penn State) and Kobe McCrary (176 vs Indiana State). This is the first time that Minnesota has had three running backs notch 100-yard games in a season since 2007 when Amir Pinnix (168 vs Bowling Green, 126 vs Miami (Ohio)), Jay Thomas (100 vs Northwestern) and Duane Bennett (106 vs Michigan) did it.
5. Shannon Brooks has rushed for 10 career touchdowns (has also passed for one career touchdown, 42 yards to Drew Wolitarsky at Iowa last season) and has covered 290 yards while doing so. That means the sophomore averages 29.0 yards per touchdown. His seven scores last year came from 75, 71, 40, 38, five and three yards (twice) and he has scored from 37 and nine yards (two times) this season. A year ago, he became the first Gopher since Laurence Maroney in 2005 to have four touchdown runs longer than 35 yards in one season, as Maroney had scoring runs of 93 yards (Wisconsin), 73 (Tulsa), 67 (Tulsa) and 38 (Florida Atlantic). For his career, Brooks has 156 carries for 949 yards and a 6.1 average. He needs 51 more yards to become the 45th Gopher ever to rush for 1,000 career yards. His classmate Rodney Smith, who has 1,116 career yards, became the 44th player earlier this year.
Maryland players to watch
1) Perry Hills, quarterback: 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.
2) Jesse Aniebonam, linebacker: 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.
3) The Maryland running backs: What Maryland wants to do is run the ball, and with their quarterback a little banged up, it's going to come down to the backs. The two names to watch here are Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison who have combined for 700 yards and seven rushing scores so far this season. On 77 carries this season, the duo is averaging over nine yards a carry. This Minnesota run defense is going to be tested.
Keys to the game
1. Let Rhoda get comfortable in the flow of the game: It's no secret that one of the keys to success for Minnesota on Saturday is going to be to let Conor Rhoda get comfortable in his first career start. Where Rhoda has thrived in practice is in the short to intermediate game with his arm strength and accuracy and that's exactly where Minnesota's passing game has lived so far this season. It'll be about getting Drew Wolitarsky and hopefully tight end Brandon Lingen the ball here early in the game, and converting on third and managable. Minnesota's also going to have to make the running game in on track with Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks to take some of the heat of Rhoda. With Jonah Pirsig out, Rhoda may not have a lot of time in the pocket, so he's got to be able to get the ball out quick, and accurately.
2. Get the running game going, and make Maryland pass the ball: Minnesota's offense so far in 2016 is about as balanced as you'll see with the Gophers having 1,015 rushing yards and 1,012 passing yards through their first five games, but with a brand new quarterback getting his first start on the road, this game should setup well for Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. Maryland was absolutely gashed by Penn State last week as the Nittany Lions were able to run the ball down the throats of the Terrapins for a 6.0 yards per carry average on 62 (!!) attempts. That comes out to a total of 372 yards on the ground last week, so Minnesota's offensive line has a great opportunity to bounce back after "being whipped" by Iowa last week. If Smith and Brooks don't get a total of 40 touches between the two of them, I'll be very surprised.
On the defensive side of the ball for Minnesota, it's going to all about shutting down the Maryland running game that's averaging 274 yards a game on the season. Penn State was able to limit Maryland's rushing attack to 180 yards last week and the Terrapins passing game is one play that Minnesota can exploit, but they'll have to shut down Maryland on the ground first. Minnesota's rushing defense is giving up 3.6 yards per carry and only 134.2 yards on the ground per game so far, so this should be a good test for both sides on Saturday.
If Minnesota is able to stop the run and force Maryland to throw, there's going to be some opportunities for the Minnesota secondary.
3. Clean up the penalties: I swear I'm not a broken record here, but for the seemingly fourth week in a row now, we have to talk about penalities. 43 penalties through five games, and while we all know that's unacceptable, it needs to start changing. Minnesota gave away free first downs and they had drives stall out last week as pre-snap penalities or holding calls put them in unfavorable situations. You can't give away free possessions in the Big Ten and expect to win. The team discipline needs to start to correct itself and it needs to start this week against Maryland.
This is the must-win of must win games for Minnesota this season. Two straight losses that absolutely should have been wins, and now the Gophers have to go across the country to Maryland in search of their first Big Ten win with a brand new quarterback.
This is game is going to be able whether Minnesota's able to win the battle in the trenches. If this offensive line minus Jonah Pirsig is able to protect their quarterback and give running lanes for the backs to slice the ball through, then I think Gophers will be in an advantageous position for most of the day. The Gophers defensive line, specifically at defensive tackle has been stout thus far and with Hardin, Buford and Winfield back in the secondary, Minnesota's got the talent there to where they'll be able to stack the box against Maryland.
Minnesota's linebackers have to stay gap sound and be able to shed blocks, and the secondary has to take the correct angle to the ball to limit this big gains on the ground.
The Gophers know that they if they want to turn this season around, all three facets of the game have to be on the same page with the offense, defense and special teams. I think Minnesota's offensive line comes out with a fire lit under them and are able to move the ball on the ground early, which alleviates some of the pressure on Conor Rhoda in the passing game.
An underrated facet of the game that needs to ink is the special teams battle. Just as Desmond King was able to move the ball against Minnesota in the return game, the Gophers are now going against potentially an even more dangerous return man in William Likely. Ryan Santoso has to remain consistent with his punts in terms of angling the ball towards the sidelines and giving them consistent hang-time.
Minnesota comes out with something to prove on the road at Maryland gets their first win of the season in the Big Ten.