Gophers, Terrapins looking to start conference play off on the right foot
The Minnesota Golden Gophers and Maryland Terrapins will face off to open Big Ten play in an underrated matchup on Saturday. The teams enter the matchup with a combined record of 5-1 in their non-conference schedules — with the only loss belonging to Maryland at the hands of Temple last week.
Both teams have impressive wins under their belts so far in 2018. Minnesota defeated Mountain West power Fresno State 21-14 two weeks ago, while Maryland took down then-No. 23 Texas 34-29 to open the season.
On Saturday, both teams will be looking for that all-important first conference win of the season, giving them a leg up in what are expected to be two hotly-contested Big Ten divisional races.
Minnesota at Maryland
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 22 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Maryland -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Who can establish the run first?
Both teams lean heavily on the run game. Maryland is more proficient in the category, and the Terrapins will want to make sure they can run their bread and butter right out of the gate. Minnesota is more balanced on offense, but they need the rushing attack to be effective in order to take some pressure off freshman quarterback Zack Annexstad. If one of the rushing attacks is bottled up early, that is likely going to decide who ultimately wins the game.
2. Explosive playmakers on both teams
Each team has some big-time playmakers who are going to make this game fun to watch. Maryland's Ty Johnson is one of the Big Ten's most dangerous all-purpose weapons and interim head coach Matt Canada is going to look for creative ways to get him the ball all day. When Minnesota is on offense, the guy to watch is coincidentally named Tyler Johnson. The Gopher wide receiver is among the nation's leaders in receptions, yards and touchdowns through the air. He is unquestionably Annexstad's go-to guy. If he's making plays, Minnesota is in good shape.
3. Kasim Hill vs. Antoine Winfield Jr.
Ty Johnson may be Maryland's most exciting player, but Hill is the straw that stirs the drink. The Terrapins' quarterback will need to be at his best against an underrated Gopher defense if Maryland is going to come away with the win. Looking him in the eyes across the line of scrimmage will be Winfield — one of the best safeties in college football. The two of them will be making reads based on what they see from the other all day. The winning of that chess match ultimately gives their team a huge advantage.
Minnesota has scored first in all three of its games in 2018. That has led to some dynamic and balanced offensive play-calling that keeps opposing defenses guessing all afternoon. The Gopher defense has been solid as well, and I don't see that changing this weekend. Look for an early defensive stand from Minnesota to set the tone for the game, allowing quarterback Zack Annexstad to operate the offense with confidence in the first road game of his young career. The Gophers should have answers for most of what Maryland is going to do on offense, but I'm not sure the Terrapins are going to have an answer for Tyler Johnson. Look for another big day from the standout Minnesota receiver en route to an impressive Gopher win.
Prediction: Minnesota 27, Maryland 13
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! SBNation and Bleacher Report. He is a three-time FWAA writing contest award winner. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.