The last time Minnesota played Maryland was in The Hall Of Fame Classic, played on Dec. 22, 1977, in Birmingham, Alabama. It is against this backdrop that these two programs will meet up again, this time as Big Ten Conference opponents.
Minnesota is coming off two consecutive close conference losses that have hampered the program's quest for a West Division title. A three-point loss in overtime at Penn State (29-26) on Oct. 1, followed up with a home loss to division foe Iowa (14-7) last Saturday that resulted in Iowa claiming the coveted Floyd Of Rosedale trophy, have blunted the positive 3-0 start by the Golden Gophers. Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys stated after the Iowa loss, "You can always come up with excuses, but you have to find a way to get it done." And it looks like the Gophers will have to get it done on the road without senior quarterback Mitch Leidner, who is expected to miss this game because of a concussion he suffered last week.
Maryland also is coming off a loss, albeit in a much more dispiriting manner. Maryland raced out to a 4-0 start under first-year head coach DJ Durkin, only to be dominated on the road at Penn State 38-14. A defense that had allowed just 119 yards rushing in its first four games was gashed for 372 (on 62 carries for 6.0 yards per carry) and three scores by Saquon Barkley (202 yards, TD) and the other Nittany Lion ball carriers. Maryland is still in contention for the East title, but the Terrapins are just beginning to face the teeth of their B1G conference schedule.
After Minnesota, Maryland faces this daunting five-game stretch: vs. Michigan State, at Indiana, at Michigan, vs. Ohio State and at Nebraska. The Wolverines, Buckeyes and Cornhuskers are all undefeated and ranked in the top 10 of both the Associated Press and Coaches Polls. The Terrapins will close out their regular season against Rutgers, so a win on Saturday will get them one step closer to bowl eligibility while a second straight loss will make that task much more difficult.
Minnesota at Maryland
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 15 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPNU
Spread: Maryland -5
Three Things to Watch
1. Minnesota’s QB Situation
On Tuesday, Golden Gophers head coach Tracy Claeys said Mitch Leidner would not play because of a concussion he suffered in last week’s loss to Iowa. So barring a last-minute change, Minnesota will be without its senior quarterback. Even though Leidner has struggled as a passer (11th in Big Ten in passer rating, five TDs, four INTs), he has started 34 games in his career so his absence leaves a rather sizeable void at the quarterback position. Junior Conor Rhoda is expected to get the start and he’s played in three games in his three seasons and has attempted a grand total of one pass. Sophomore Demry Croft would back up Rhoda, but it may not matter against a Terrapins defense that is ranked eighth in the Big Ten in pass defense (195.4 ypg) and has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete a little more than half (51.2 percent) of their attempts. Given the inexperience at quarterback, Maryland’s defensive game plan may have just gotten a lot simpler.
2. Maryland's Rushing Offense vs. Minnesota's Rush Defense
The Gophers have done a solid job stopping the run thus far, ranking fourth in the Big Ten at 134.2 yards per game. The Terrapins have employed a committee approach on the ground with seven different players already with 15 or more carries. Freshman Lorenzo Harrison leads the way with 362 yards and is averaging 8.2 per carry. Senior quarterback Perry Hills is tied with Harrison for the most carries (44 each), but he re-aggravated a shoulder injury last week against Penn State. Head coach DJ Durkin said he expects the fifth-year senior to be ready to go for this game. Whoever is under center for Maryland, expect to see plenty of hand offs. The Terrapins are second in the Big Ten and ninth in the FBS in rushing at 274 yards per game. Minnesota’s defense will its work cut out for it against this ground-oriented attack.
3. William Likely Making a Big Play On Special Teams or Defense for Maryland
Listed at just 5-foot-7 and 175 pounds, Likely is a starting defensive back for the Terrapins, but the senior also has gained a well-deserved reputation as one of the most dangerous return specialists in the nation. He’s second in the Big Ten (11th nationally) at 30 yards per kickoff return and has returned four for touchdowns in his career. He also has returned two punts and two interceptions for scores in his career as well. So whether it’s taking a kick all the way or coming up with a big return to give the offense great field position or making a big play on the defense, look for Likely to leave his mark and potentially be one of the difference-makers in this game.
Maryland is coming in off a disappointing road loss, while Minnesota has to travel to an unfamiliar stadium after two close losses and will be without its senior quarterback. The Terrapins looked impressive to start the season and will try to get back to the formula that helped them jump out to a 4-0 start. Expect to see Maryland lean heavily on the run in an effort to dictate tempo and game flow and also get back to being the more physical team on both sides of the ball. The Golden Gophers’ issues at quarterback will be too much to overcome, as the Terrapins wear down their visitors, regain their swagger and get one step closer to bowl eligibility.
Prediction: Maryland 28, Minnesota 13
— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.