COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The Gophers have taken an old offensive innovation and adapted it on the other side of the ball.
They have implemented — innovated, even — the Spread Defense.
Their front creates running lanes that could charge tolls. Their secondary leaves open swaths of green space that could be designated national parks. Minutes after the game, the Maryland football team’s Twitter account displayed a picture of their quarterback under large letters spelling “Boat Rowed,’’ a shot at Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck’s slogan.
Friday night, their defense got boat-raced, losing to Maryland 45-44 in overtime at Capital One Field.
In Week 1, the Gophers gave up 49 points despite three missed Michigan field goals. In Week 2, they gave up a 300-yard passing game, a 200-yard rushing game, two 100-yard receiving games and any chance of producing another historic season.
The most immediate cause of the loss was a missed extra point in overtime; the true culprit was a defense that has allowed 94 points in two weeks.
It could have been worse. The Terps hit an upright with a field goal, fumbled into the end zone on first-and-goal from the 1, threw an unforced interception on a screen pass, were penalized for a crackback block on a big play, dropped a few passes and ran out the clock instead of trying to score at the end of regulation.
On the Gophers’ previous trip to Maryland, in 2018, they allowed 42 points, many on unfettered runs to the end zone. Six weeks later, they fired their defensive coordinator. They finished 3-6 in the Big Ten, and Fleck’s promises sounded hollow as a carved pumpkin.
Friday night, the Gophers returned to College Park and again their defense prompted concerns that this is going to be a difficult season for Fleck and his aphorisms.
In the first 13 minutes of the game, the Gophers defense gave up 21 points, looking slow and sometimes confused.
This created the embarrassing possibility that defensive coordinator Joe Rossi would be compared to his predecessor, Robb “Olé’’ Smith.
In 2018, Smith was fired after his defense allowed 86 points over two games. In the first two games of the 2020 season, Rossi’s defense has allowed 86 points in regulation, plus Maryland’s overtime touchdown.
“It’s unacceptable,’’ Fleck said. “With that many yards and that many explosive plays there has to be a lot of accountability, and it starts with me. This is a developmental program.
“Too many missed tackles, too many people in position to make a tackle and make a play and didn’t do that.’’
With Maryland leading 21-14 and driving in the second quarter, Terps quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa flicked a screen pass, Gophers defensive end Mafe Boye leapt and tipped it, and freshman defensive tackle DeAngelo Carter gathered it in before rumbling to the Maryland 29.
Maryland didn’t score again until early in the fourth quarter, and yet would produce 675 yards.
The Terrapins have been the Gophers’ canary in the coal mine since Fleck arrived.
In 2017, Fleck’s first season with the Gophers, his team looked unimpressive and lost 24-13.
In 2018, Maryland won 42-13, scoring untouched on several plays.
In 2019, the Gophers beat Maryland 52-10 at TCF Bank Stadium as they cruised through the soft portion of the Big Ten schedule on their way to the Outback Bowl.
In 2020, the Maryland game indicated that the Gophers’ problem wasn’t matching up with Michigan; it is matching up with any Big Ten offense.
Last week, Maryland managed just three points against Northwestern. Friday, running back Jake Funk totaled the most rushing yards by a Terp since 1998 and Tagovailoa became the first Maryland quarterback to pass for 300 yards since 2013.
Tagovailoa became the first Big Ten player with a 30-yard rushing touchdown and a 75-yard passing touchdown in the same quarter since the Gophers’ Asad Abdul-Khaliq did it on Aug. 31, 2002.
“Everything starts with me,’’ Fleck said.
But the last time this happened, Fleck didn’t punish himself. He fired his defensive coordinator.