The Maryland football team will need to flip the script when Big Ten play begins on Saturday.
After a deflating 38-10 loss against Central Florida, the Terrapins hit the road to take on Minnesota this week.
The Golden Gophers are off to a 3-0 start in the first season under former Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck. They’ve defeated Oregon State and Middle Tennessee by a margin of 82-17 in their last two games.
Minnesota’s offense doesn’t have nearly the type of big play potential that Maryland possesses. The Golden Gophers are averaging 33.0 points-per-game and are one of just four Big Ten teams that have less than 100 points on the young season.
Minnesota relies on the running game quite a bit, which shouldn’t come as a huge surprise with Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks in the backfield. Their 156 rushing attempts in three games are more than some Big Ten teams that have played four contests so far.
This could be a game where the backfields reign supreme.
The Minnesota offense consists of quite a few familiar faces that Maryland fans should recognize.
Quarterback Conor Rhoda is back as a redshirt senior and provides a stable presence.
Rhoda was set to take a medical sales job in the offseason before Fleck convinced him to return to school and battle for the starting quarterback gig. The Eagan (Minn.) native won the job and has been successful early on this season.
He is completing 65.2 percent of his passes while throwing for 456 yards and two touchdowns.
Rhoda didn’t play a whole lot prior to the 2017 campaign. Ironically, he started the game against Maryland last fall and was able to help lead the Golden Gophers past the Terps in a 31-10 win.
He completed 7-of-15 passes for 82 yards and a touchdown in that game. Tyrrell Pigrome also made his first career start in that game and saw his fair share of struggles as well.
Rhoda isn’t the type of quarterback that is going to take a ton of chances. Through his three starts in 2017, it’s clear that he’s a game manager that is going to rely on his running game.
His completion percentage is the third-highest in the conference behind Purdue’s David Blough and Wisconsin’s Alex Hornibrook. Considering how inefficient he was against Maryland last season, it looks like Rhoda has made huge strides.
The Terps definitely are going to need to get a lot more pressure on Rhoda than they did against Central Florida. If they can get in Rhoda’s face early in the game, it could go a long way towards winning the turnover battle.
Rodney Smith/Shannon Brooks
As was mentioned above, Minnesota is likely going to depend on the running game against Maryland.
The Golden Gophers pounded the rock frequently in last year’s meeting. As a team, they averaged 4.8 yards-per-carry and racked up 229 rushing yards on that afternoon.
The dynamic duo of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks did all the damage on the ground. Smith rushed for 144 yards and a pair of touchdowns on just 18 carries (8.0 yards-per-carry) while Brooks accumulated 86 yards on 22 carries (3.9 per carry).
Minnesota currently has the fifth-best rushing attack in the Big Ten. On the season, they’re totaling 214.1 yards-per-game on the ground.
Smith is the workhorse of the duo and has double the number of carries this season. The Georgia native has 275 yards, but has only sniffed the end zone once.
Minnesota is very innovative when it comes to their play calling involving Brooks and Smith. Fleck does like to have both of his star running backs on the field simultaneously if possible.
On multiple ocassions against Oregon State, the Golden Gophers would line Brooks up on the outside at wide receiver. Rhoda would act like Brooks was getting the handoff on a jet sweep, but sometimes he would use play action with Brooks and put the ball into the gut of Smith.
Brooks would actually get the handoff other times and use his speed to get to the outside for a big gain. In a third option, Rhoda would fake the handoff to both backs and throw the ball down the field.
It’s not going to be a huge surprise if both backs are used quite a bit against Maryland. The Terps are yielding 149.0 rushing yards per contest, so that’s likely going to be something that the Golden Gophers will want to attack.
Rhoda has been impressive so far, but there’s a large amount of the passing volume finding one particular wideout.
Sophomore Tyler Johnson has 12 receptions for 282 yards and two touchdowns through three games. Johnson has 54.3 percent of Minnesota’s receiving yards this season.
Johnson definitely has big play capability and makes the most of his opportunities.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Minnesota wideout has the highest yards per route run among Big Ten receivers at 4.62. Ironically, Maryland’s D.J. Moore is right behind him with 4.20.
In Minnesota’s wins over Buffalo and Oregon State, Rhoda found Johnson on similar routes that resulted in touchdowns. Johnson ran crossing patterns on both plays, which resulted in touchdowns from 67 and 61 yards respectively.
Johnson’s speed allows him to get separation from defenders. In addition, he can accelerate and outrace the secondary on his way to the end zone.
His 94.0 receiving yards-per-game is good for third in the Big Ten behind just Moore and Nebraska’s Stanley Morgan.
It’s been established that Rhoda is a very patient quarterback. He’s definitely able to find ways to get the ball down the field to Johnson.
Maryland is the most talented secondary that Minnesota has faced so far this season. It’s likely that cornerback J.C. Jackson will be guarding Johnson on Saturday afternoon.
While the Golden Gophers may not throw a ton, it definitely has the potential to be a track meet if they are able to get the ball to Johnson.