This thing felt wrecked, and wretched, from the opening kickoff. The Gophers won the coin toss, deferred to the second half and promptly booted the kickoff out of bounds.
Their performance hurtled downhill from there.
A 31-24 loss to Maryland in the Big Ten opener should be remembered as a red flag game. Where even to start …
Their defense got shredded by a third-string quarterback and failed miserably on third downs.
The Gophers couldn’t run the ball, or stop the run. They repeatedly gave up extra yards by slipping off tackles.
Kicker Ryan Santoso knocked two kickoffs out of bounds, including a costly one late in the first half.
Conor Rhoda threw two interceptions, the first one coming at Maryland’s 5-yard line. Rhoda also refused to keep the ball on read-option plays even though the Maryland defense smothered running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks.
Normally reliable Emmit Carpenter missed a 42-yard field goal.
In a matchup of coaching initials, Maryland’s D.J. Durkin outmaneuvered P.J. Fleck with a clever play call and clock management at the end of the first half to steal three points.
And with the score tied at 24-24 and needing a stop to force overtime, the Gophers didn’t touch running back Ty Johnson on a 34-yard touchdown run right up the gut.
The totality of those issues offered a sobering reminder that a 3-0 start came against decidedly weaker foes than what the Gophers will face in conference.
“We got exactly what we deserved,” Fleck said.
This one left a bad taste. The Gophers have obvious limitations in certain areas, but they played so poorly at home against a team with its own limitations that it’s difficult to muster much optimism.
Yes, the loss of Antoine Winfield Jr. to injury early on was deflating, especially since the other starting safety, Duke McGhee, was sidelined for undisclosed disciplinary reasons. Injuries and suspensions are exposing the roster’s lack of depth.
But let’s hold the woe-is-us spiel. Maryland was down to its third quarterback coming off a 28-point loss to Central Florida. The Terps faced significant challenges, too.
One team overcame its adversity, one didn’t.
“These are the scars that are going to help us fail and grow,” Fleck said.
The defense lost its matchup decisively. The line generated no sacks and minimal pressure. Maryland pounded the Gophers on the ground and converted nine of 15 third downs (not counting a final kneel-down). The Terps entered the game ranked 128 out of 130 teams in third-down conversion rate at 23 percent.
“They came in here and took it,” Fleck said.
On the other side, Fleck’s staff somehow needs to convince Rhoda to keep it. His reluctance to keep the ball in his hands on read-option plays allows defenses to swarm Smith and Brooks without trepidation. Defenses don’t have to play honest because there is only one option.
The edge looked wide open all game, but Rhoda refused to pull the ball and force the defense to account for him. Smith and Brooks kept slamming into a brick wall, limited to 74 yards combined for the game. The Gophers won’t win many games with that formula.
Both Fleck and Rhoda downplayed that topic, saying only that Rhoda might have missed a few opportunities to run.
“I trust [Smith] and [Brooks] so much that I want the ball in their hands unless the read shows me that it’s a definite keep,” Rhoda said. “But there’s a lot of stuff that’s up for discretion.”
It’s smart that Rhoda accepts his lack of mobility and wants the ball in the hands of his talented duo. But he has to make himself a threat to prevent defenses from ganging up on his running backs.
Rhoda finally kept it once in the fourth quarter for a 6-yard gain that also drew a personal foul on a late hit as he was sliding. Brooks’ 1-yard touchdown run on that drive tied the score.
Their momentum was fleeting. The defense crumbled. Then Rhoda threw a loss-sealing interception in desperation time.
Fleck was correct. His team got what it deserved.