You can add another category to the list of firsts in P.J. Fleck’s inaugural season as Gophers football coach.
His first loss.
The Gophers fell 31-24 to Maryland on Saturday afternoon in front of an announced 43,511 at TCF Bank Stadium as mistakes piled up, injuries and absences took a toll and Minnesota couldn’t get a defensive stop when needed.
Maryland’s Ty Johnson burst through the middle for a 34-yard touchdown run with 1 minute, 10 seconds left for the winning score in the Big Ten opener for both teams after the Gophers had tied the score 24-24 with 3:54 to play.
“We didn’t deserve to win the football game — simple,” Fleck said. “When you look at why and how we win football games, that was flipped over on us today.”
That certainly was the case.
• Minnesota entered the game with the nation’s best rushing defense, giving up a mere 59 yards per game. Maryland gashed the Gophers for 262 yards on 47 carries, including 130 on 18 runs by Johnson.
• The Gophers’ nation’s-best scoring defense (8.0 points allowed per game) surrendered 31, seven more than in its three nonconference games against lesser opponents.
• The Gophers’ ball-hogging dominance that led to a No. 2 national ranking in time of possession (36 minutes, 44 seconds per game) never materialized. The Terrapins had the ball for 32:15.
Add all of those with quarterback Conor Rhoda’s two interceptions, Emmit Carpenter’s missed field goal and two kickoffs out of bounds by Ryan Santoso, and you have a recipe for defeat against a team of Big Ten pedigree.
“We thought that was a game that we could win, but bottom line, we didn’t play well enough to win the game,” Rhoda said.
Still, the Gophers (3-1) had a chance to win.
After Maryland (3-1) went ahead 24-17 with 11:11 left in the fourth quarter on third-string QB Max Bortenschlager’s 4-yard TD pass to Jake Funk — the first second-half points the Gophers had allowed this season — Rhoda led the tying drive.
Starting at their 20 with 7:03 left, the Gophers used a 6-yard gain by Rhoda — his only keeper of the game — plus a 15-yard late hit penalty on Maryland’s Josh Woods to move the ball to the Terps 47. Rhoda then found Tyler Johnson for a 27-yard gain to the 20. Then a 12-yard reception by Philip Howard was wiped out by Rashad Still’s offensive pass interference penalty.
But Rhoda found Eric Carter, who made a spectacular diving catch for a 35-yard gain to the 1. Shannon Brooks scored on the next play for a 24-24 tie with 3:54 left. “After I made that catch, I knew we could punch it in,” Carter said.
Turns out, that was too much time to leave.
Bortenschlager and D.J. Moore hooked up three times for 22 yards to the Minnesota 34, then Ty Johnson delivered the knockout blow.
“We need to tackle better,” said Gophers linebacker Jonathan Celestin, who made 15 tackles, 11 solo. “That was the biggest thing for us today.”
It didn’t help the Gophers that their best player in the secondary, Antoine Winfield Jr., was lost for the game in the first quarter to a hamstring injury. Their other starting safety, Duke McGhee, was serving an indefinite suspension for undisclosed disciplinary reasons.
Two sequences in the second quarter showed how thin the Gophers’ margin for error can be.
With the score tied 7-7 and Minnesota on the Maryland 15, Rhoda threw high to Tyler Johnson. Johnson tipped the ball, and Woods intercepted it.
“I’ve got to make his job way easier,” said Rhoda, who went 13-for-26 for 229 yards and a TD with those two picks. “It’s gotta be a lot better.”
After Carpenter’s 41-yard field goal with 58 seconds left in the first half cut the Terps’ lead to 14-10, Santoso’s kickoff went out of bounds. After a 2-yard gain on first down, Fleck called timeout with 12 seconds left because he feared the defensive personnel in the game were susceptible to a long pass. Given another chance, Maryland hit a 13-yard pass to the 50 and called timeout.
Ty Johnson then went 17 yards up the middle to the Gophers 33, sliding himself down with 2 seconds left. Henry Darmstadter kicked a 51-yard field goal as time expired for a 17-10 Maryland lead.
“They used a timeout, so you know we said, ‘Let’s go hit it,’ ” Maryland coach D.J. Durkin said.
The Terps did hit it, just one more thing that led to the first loss for Fleck and the Gophers.