Gophers coach P.J. Fleck knows he won’t win any game in the Big Ten if there’s a repeat performance like the completely one-sided rushing numbers for Maryland in Saturday’s 31-24 loss.
Fleck avoided calling out tailbacks Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks for combining to rush for only 80 yards, the lowest for Minnesota since running for just 53 yards in a loss to Wisconsin in 2015.
Fleck didn’t throw his defensive line under the bus either for allowing 262 yards rushing against the Terrapins, the most on the ground for an opponent since Iowa’s 272 yards in a loss also two years ago.
“But I think that was one of the biggest differences in the ballgame — is when you look at the line of scrimmage,” Fleck said. “We did not win the upfront battle, and it cost us.”
The Gophers ran for 229 yards in a 31-10 win at Maryland last year, with Smith going for 144 and two TDs. So what happened this time?
Is the secret out on how to shut down one of the top rushing tandems in the Big Ten? Maybe, if you’re a talented Power Five school.
Maryland did what Minnesota’s previous three opponents couldn’t, stopping the run with eight or nine players close to the line of scrimmage. The Terps have more talent and better athletes than Buffalo, Oregon State and Middle Tennessee.
“There’s a difference between loading up the box in Big Ten play and loading up the box in Group of Five play at times,” Fleck said. “Our guys have to be able to make plays.”
On the flip side, the Gophers’ defense failed miserably to limit Maryland backs Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison III. They combined for 205 yards, including Johnson’s game-winning 34-yard score going untouched up the middle of the field with 2 minutes, 44 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Minnesota’s rush defense ranked No. 1 nationally after three games, allowing just 59 yards per game. But that might have been fool’s gold, because those opponents were far from formidable on the ground.
Maryland entered Saturday’s game ranked third in the Big Ten (behind only Wisconsin and Ohio State) and 28th nationally in rushing offense (224 yards per game), which included 263 yards rushing in a 51-41 win against Texas.
“As you could see there were plenty of times we had them,” Fleck said. “We just didn’t tackle well in space. That was the big thing. Their athleticism. They’re really, really talented running backs. And then we didn’t tackle well in space. I didn’t think we wrapped up from the beginning until the end.”