The Gophers are 13-point favorites over Maryland in their Big Ten football opener Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, according to the Las Vegas sports books.
However, Gophers coach P.J. Fleck expects to face a talented team that started out 2-0 and beat Texas 51-41 in Austin, and said he doesn’t believe the Terrapins losing two quarterbacks (Tyrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill) because of season-ending injuries will make a bit of a difference in his first conference game as a head coach.
“Scouting report is very simple; they’re on their third-string quarterback [Max Bortenschlager] but that doesn’t matter,” Fleck said. “They have two running backs [Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison III] and two wideouts [D.J. Moore and Taivon Jacobs] that are exceptional. These four could play anywhere in the country. I do know this, they’re going to get the ball in their hands all the time, period. Whoever throws it to them, whether they throw it to themselves or throw bubbles to them or reverses or screens, they’re going to get the ball to these guys and the quarterback is going to take advantage of his opportunity.
“Defensively they fly around, they’re tough, they’re big, their secondary is very talented. On special teams, they do a lot of stuff to confuse you.”
The Gophers are relatively healthy after a bye week, giving injured running backs Shannon Brooks (shoulder) and Rodney Smith (unspecified) time to heal. They will be backed up by Kobe McCrary, who had 107 yards rushing and three scores when he replaced them two weeks ago in a 34-3 victory over Middle Tennessee.
“[We] got back some players healthy and some players we were not able to get back just yet,” Fleck said. “We’ll get there. We’re getting healthy, and we have to kind of just stay healthy as long as we possibly can. We have a lack of depth at positions and some issues, but it is what it is and we need guys to play longer and somehow stay healthy.”
When asked what he saw about the Terrapins in their first two victories, Fleck said they looked like a dominant team.
“Any time you beat the Texas Longhorns [in Austin], you have a really good football team.” he said. “They followed it up with a -point performance against Towson and they lost [38-10] last week against Central Florida, but they’re a good football team.”
Bye week benefit
The Gophers got a big break in having their bye week right before a home Big Ten opener, and Fleck said it gave them a good chance to get rested and ready for Maryland.
“We got a lot of work done in the bye week, we really did,” he said. “On Tuesday we were able to get back to the fundamentals and details of what we have to get better at from the first three games, and what we’re good at and what we’re not good at. Wednesday we practiced against each other, Minnesota against Minnesota … which was work we needed.
“Then Thursday we got on to Maryland. Then we went recruiting for the weekend, I thought it was a really productive bye week we had. We’re into Big Ten play, and it’s really important that we start out on the right foot.”
Quarterback Conor Rhoda will start his fourth consecutive game, going against the team he made his first college start against last season, a 31-10 victory.
“Conor has done a tremendous job of running the system the way he has,” Fleck said. “I think he is developing into knowing who he is as a quarterback.
“That’s another thing: You have to form your own identity, but if you don’t have any reps to form it, you don’t know who you are. I think he’s starting to understand who he is. [Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarocca] is putting him in a great position to be successful.”
As Fleck prepares for his first Big Ten game, he was asked if he expected to be 3-0 at this point when he took over the Gophers earlier this year.
“I never had any expectations of any numbers,” he said. “I never have, and I never will. I wanted us to be better in Week 1 than we were before in training camp. I wanted us to be better in Week 2 than we were in Week 1. Now we’re in Week 4 for us, and I just want us to be better than we were in Week 3.”
Wouldn’t that be something if the Gophers beat Maryland and followed it with a victory over Purdue to start 5-0, just like the Vikings did last year?
Vikings wideout stars
Three weeks into the NFL season, you’d be hard pressed to find a better or more unlikely star receiving duo than the Vikings’ Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. But there is simply no question that through three games, they are the hottest pair of wide receivers.
Thielen is second in the NFL in receiving yards with 299, and Diggs is third with 293. Diggs leads the NFL with four touchdowns. Thielen hasn’t scored, but he leads the league with six receptions of 20 or more yards; Diggs is tied for second in that category with five.
Thielen was asked after the Vikings’ 34-17 victory over Tampa Bay last Sunday how they’ve been able to put up such great numbers with two starting quarterbacks in three games. He said it’s because Case Keenum and Sam Bradford work so closely together.
“I think we’ve done a really good job of working with [Keenum] since OTAs, minicamp, training camp,” Thielen said. “Whether it be routes or individual things, we’re getting work with him. And another thing Case does a great job with is he’s talking through stuff with Sam even when Sam’s starting.
“He’s talking through stuff with us, how they like things done and how they want us to run things.”
• Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks was asked about the defense forcing three turnovers against the Buccaneers after not recording any in their first two games. “We knew we were going to get turnovers,” he said. “We just have to keep playing our keys, get tipped balls, hustle plays and things like that. We had to pressure the quarterback, which we love to do.”
• Jarius Wright got his first touchdown of the season against the Bucs, after having only one TD all of last season. The wide receiver talked about the 2-yard score: “Just a wide-open [pass in the] flat. I turn around, and Case is ready to throw me the ball. It was a great throw. That made it easy for me.”
• Former Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki has had a solid year in Atlanta, hitting .277 with a career-high 18 home runs and 47 RBI. He was rewarded with a one-year contract extension worth $3.5 million late last week.
Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. on Monday and Friday and at 9:30 a.m. on Sundays. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org