After defensive breakdown, Gopher schedule shows few gimmies
MINNEAPOLIS — The beginning of the Gophers' Big Ten schedule this season appeared to be front-loaded with winnable games considered necessary to reach bowl eligibility.
The foes — Maryland, Purdue, Michigan State and Illinois — went a combined 15-34 in 2016, with expectations this season to be middling at best. The back half of the slate looked more daunting with Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin.
But the Gophers (3-1, 0-1 Big Ten) dropped the conference opener 31-24 to the Terrapins at home on Saturday, Sept. 30, and now head to face an improved the Boilermakers (2-2, 0-1) in West Lafayette, Ind., next weekend.
New Purdue coach Jeff Brohm earned the job based on his success at Western Kentucky, where his electrifying offenses were a national pacesetter and averaged 44 points and 356 passing yards over three season. They won back-to-back Conference USA titles in 2015 and 2016.
Brohm's Boilermakers led No. 8 Michigan 10-7 in the third quarter, without converting on third down, and then gave up 21 unanswered points to lose 28-10. In the season opener, they battled No. 17 Louisville, with Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, and benefited from two Cardinals fumbles near the goal line, before falling 35-28. In between, they beat Ohio and blew out Missouri.
The Boilermakers have passed on 52 percent of snaps this season, with David Blough and Elijah Sindelar combining to throw 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. This could be problematic, with the Gophers secondary falling further shorthanded against Maryland.
With backup cornerback Zo Craighton already out for the season, starting safety Duke McGhee was absent for undisclosed reasons, and fellow safety Antoine Winfield Jr. exited early in the game with another hamstring injury.
The Gophers removed the redshirt of freshman Ken Handy-Holly, and coach P.J. Fleck told WCCO-AM on Sunday morning that the staff is considering moving receivers to the secondary to try to help fill the gap created since 2016. The secondary was decimated in the offseason by the departures of two seniors (Damarius Travis, Jalen Myrick) and three underclassmen (Kiante Hardin, Ray Buford, Dior Johnson) after last season's alleged sexual misconduct incident.
The Terrapins (3-1, 1-0) got 154 passing yards from Max Bortenschlager, who was their third-string quarterback before injuries moved him into the starting spot last week, and 262 rushing yards behind explosive running back Ty Johnson, who averaged 7.2 yards per carry and sealed the win with a 34-yard touchdown late in the game.
The Terrapins, who never trailed and were tied three times, were able to take advantage of the Gophers' many missed tackles and an inability for them to generate sacks.
After Maryland was porous against pass rushes all last season, Bortenschlager was sacked five times in the 38-10 blowout loss to Central Florida. On Saturday, the Gophers, who now average a paltry 1.25 sacks per game, didn't take down Bortenschlager.
Fleck said Maryland and other opponents have used a quick passing game to avoid QB pressures and sacks, diminishing the impact of a rush.
"It's hard to get to the quarterback no matter who you are (with quick throws)," Fleck said. "And we had to help our secondary with Antoine going down, and them having some of the best playmakers in the league. Again, it's pick your poison.
"You can lose a lot faster by one big play for 80 yards than you can lose by a 12-play drive that maybe they turn the ball over, maybe they screw up a third down or throw a ball incomplete," he continued. "You have to look at how is the game is going and how does it change throughout the game. Then you have to make your adjustments as a coach to give your team the best opportunity to win."
When the Gophers lost Winfield, a freshman All-American last season and the U's third-leading tackler entering Saturday's game, their game plan was changed because Winfield was set to mirror Terrapins leading receiver D.J. Moore. Moore finished with eight catches for 90 yards and a 27-yard touchdown over cornerback Antonio Shenault.
Fleck said the Gophers dropped more players into pass coverage instead of blitzing, in order to help out the shorthanded secondary.
Senior captain linebacker Jon Celestin took some of the onus. "We just need to find more ways to get more pressure on QBs like we're used to," he said. "That is something that we weren't successful on (Saturday)."
Celestin had a career high 15 tackles. Also hitting career highs were Shenault (11), linebacker Thomas Barber (10), cornerback Kiondre Thomas (6) and safety Jacob Huff (6). But Minnesota's missed tackles were glaring against the Terrapins' athletes from the opening series to the back-breaking last big play.
On Maryland's game-clinching touchdown run, Johnson went untouched for 34 yards right up the middle of the Minnesota defense. No one filled the gap nor provided run support.
"As you could see, there were plenty of times that we had them, and we just didn't tackle well in space," Fleck said. "... I didn't think we wrapped up from the beginning to the end. I think that was the story of the run game."