A game the Gophers should have won handily with a double-digit margin combusted into a one-point overtime loss at Maryland, leaving the Gophers with an 0-2 record with seven games to go in the shortened Big Ten season.
Brock Walker missing an extra point wide right in overtime to seal the upset is what many will remember, but his mistake was far from the only reason why the Gophers find themselves a shadow of last season’s 11-2 triumph. The defense allowed Maryland — a team that managed just three points a week ago — 675 total yards and looked generally out of sorts. The offense relied heavily on Mohamed Ibrahim’s 207 yards and four touchdowns, but he has been the only consistently good player this season.
The Gophers started incredibly slow, with a two-touchdown deficit before rallying to 31 uninterrupted points through the second and third quarters. But they fell off again in the fourth, allowing a string of 24 points from the Terrapins to force overtime.
“We just have to finish the game better as an offensive unit,” quarterback Tanner Morgan said. “When we get those chances, we’ve got to finish.”
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O-line injury: The Gophers’ already depleted offensive line took another hit Friday with left guard Axel Ruschmeyer’s third-quarter exit. He appeared to injure his left leg in a pileup and limped off the field, Nathan Boe replacing him. The right side of that group is already out for the foreseeable future, right guard Curtis Dunlap Jr., with an injury and right tackle Daniel Faalele with COVID-19 concerns. The unit allowed five sacks in the season opener but looked better against Maryland, allowing one sack but blocking for 262 yards on the ground. Cornerback Coney Durr and wildcat quarterback Seth Green also briefly left the game with apparent injuries, but both returned to make good plays, a pass-break-up for Durr and an overtime score for Green.
Where’s Bateman?: With all the hype around Rashod Bateman as the returning Big Ten Receiver of the Year who reversed his opt-out decision despite his potential as a first-round pick, he’s been pretty quiet in the Gophers’ first two games. While he took the majority of targets against Michigan, ending with nine catches for 101 yards, Chris Autman-Bell took the reins at Maryland while Bateman managed just 62 yards on five receptions. He has yet to score. Defenses have keyed on him, and the Maryland game was always set up to be a run-heavy operation. But behind Bateman and Morgan — who’s at 28-of-46 for 386 yards, two touchdowns and an interception through two games — the pass game chemistry isn’t what it used to be.
Defense drama: Last year’s defense allowed opponents an average of 306.6 yards per game. This incarnation has nearly doubled that, averaging 578 a game and near a first down per play. Cornerback Benjamin St-Juste, linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin, defensive end Boye Mafe and more all missed big plays or found themselves trailing defenders. They managed an interception, fumble recovery and sack, but those hardly made up for all the mishaps and costly penalties. Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi made a few tweaks, like giving Terell Smith some of St-Juste’s reps, but there’s just not many personnel changes to make when the majority of starters are inexperienced and the few veterans have struggled to lead communication on the field.
Up next: at Illinois
2:30 p.m. Saturday, Memorial Stadium • BTN (100.3-FM)
The skinny: The Gophers need to correct course ASAP, and a trip to Illinois is a good a chance as any on this schedule, especially considering the Gophers couldn’t even beat Maryland, another supposed easy win.
Lovie Smith’s team lost badly at Wisconsin, 45-7, in the season opener. Against Purdue on Saturday, the Illini dropped to 0-2 with a 31-24 loss.
Positive COVID-19 tests have drained the Illini, with starting quarterback Brandon Peters out this most recent game along with tight end Griffin Moore. Several other players also sat out because of contact tracing, including backup quarterback Isaiah Washington.
Peters and Moore, though, will miss the Gophers game per the Big Ten’s policy that sidelines COVID-positive players for 21 days. Illinois started Matt Robinson, but he left the game after an injury during the first series, so fourth-stringer Coran Taylor made his debut. The sophomore went 17-for-29 for 273 yards, with two touchdown passes and two interceptions.
Wisconsin has a coronavirus outbreak on its team with 22 positive cases between players and staff, including starting quarterback Graham Mertz. It’s unclear if Illinois’ situation is related.
The Gophers have not disclosed which players might have tested positive, though several absent starters on the special teams unit were presumably because of COVID-19.