Before the Gophers grabbed the Big Ten West Division lead by the throat with a runaway 52-10 victory over Maryland, Saturday’s game at sun-splashed TCF Bank Stadium first slipped right through Terrapins receiver Dontay Demus Jr.’s hands.
By the time the Gophers took an insurmountable 28-3 lead into halftime, two passes went off Demus’ hands directly to defenders in two plays that changed the game.
“We were opportunistic,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said.
Antoine Winfield Jr.’s interception at midfield on the game’s second play and his 30-yard return set up the Gophers’ first touchdown barely 2 minutes in.
“It shaped the game a lot,” Winfield said. “It set the tone for us.”
Coney Durr’s interception returned 72 yards for a touchdown — with a convoy of teammates accompanying him to the end zone — provided the Gophers a 28-0 lead with 3 minutes, 41 seconds remaining in the first half.
Fleck called a Maryland team that beat the Gophers 42-13 last season and outscored Howard and Syracuse 142-20 in this season’s first two games one of the country’s most explosive, even if it lost 59-0 at home to Penn State two games later.
“We did a great job swarming and we were in the right positions,” Fleck said. “If you’re in the right positions, you can play solid defense and when you’re opportunistic, you can catch the ball and run.”
Winfield and Durr both proved themselves opportunities for a Gophers team that is now 8-0 overall and 5-0 in conference play and leads border rivals Wisconsin and Iowa by two games each in the Big Ten West.
A player who suffered season-ending injuries vs. Maryland in each of the past two seasons, Winfield intercepted two passes — including one returned for a touchdown — last week at Rutgers and now has five interceptions in eight games. That’s second in the nation behind Texas Tech’s Douglas Coleman’s six.
“Antoine just finds the ball,” Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan said. “It’s crazy. The ball, he’s like a magnet. I don’t know, he’s just always around the football. It’s ridiculous. Two interceptions last week, one this week, it set us up offensively for success. To go down and score right away is huge.”
Winfield predicted his pick-six last week and said he did so again Saturday to his younger brother Austin, a Gophers freshman defensive back.
“Actually, I did,” he said. “You can ask my brother on this one. I didn’t get a pick-six, but I got an interception on the first drive, so that counts for something.”
The Gophers’ 11 interceptions this season are second in the Big Ten and 11th in the nation. Three of those have been returned for touchdowns.
Demus gained 7 yards on the game’s first play from scrimmage. His second pass from Maryland quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome — a little high and maybe a little behind him — went through his hands and directly to Winfield 5 yards behind him. Winfield caught it and ran 30 yards to the Terrapins 20, and the Gophers offense needed only four plays and 80 seconds to score a touchdown with 13:01 still left in the first quarter.
Durr finished the Gophers’ first-half scoring with his long return after Demus bobbled another pass. It popped up and fell into Durr’s hands right behind him.
At 6-3 and 200 pounds, Demus is considered a potential NFL prospect.
“It’s one of our better players, a guy who has made plays for us,” Terrapins coach Michael Locksley said. “That’s the part that’s really disappointing: Your best players should play at their best, and Demus is a guy who has made plays for us.”