It’s eerie how certain things in life follow a similar script.
Last year, the Gophers’ 31-24 loss to Maryland was the beginning of a downward spiral in Big Ten play. Antoine Winfield Jr. was injured, the run defense allowed 274 yards and weaknesses were exposed against quality competition.
Fast forward a year later. Antoine Winfield Jr. leaves the game with a foot injury, the Gophers allow 315 rushing yards and are dominated in the trenches during a 42-13 loss at Maryland
After again leaving the non-conference slate with a 3-0 record, Saturday was the first opportunity to see how the 2018 Gophers stacked up against a respectable Big Ten foe. Everyone quickly found out how much development is still needed. The physicality was simply too much as the Terrapins dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
Gophers allow too many big plays
It didn’t take long for Maryland to attack the Gophers on the ground. Minnesota allowed 55 rushing yards on Maryland’s 8-play, 75-yard opening scoring drive. Wide receiver Jeshaun Jones picked up 27 yards off jet sweep action and running back Anthony McFarland burst free for a 26-yard touchdown. The Terps offensive line did an effective job of getting into the second level to spark the score. Moments later, Antoine Winfield Jr. left the game with a foot injury and did not return. It was a major blow to the Gophers’ defense.
Two drives later, freshman walk-on safety Jordan Howard missed a tackle in space to spark an 81-yard score by Maryland running back Ty Johnson. The Terps were winning the line of scrimmage as they picked up 151 yards during the first three drives of the game. The trend continued. A long 64-yard touchdown run in the second half was the result of bad angles, alignment trouble and poor eyes as Maryland used motion to set up the play.
Minnesota’s defense simply allowed too many explosive plays in this game. They surrendered seven plays of 20-plus yards, including three which spanned more than 50 yards. One was the result of sending pressure and not closing a sack opportunity. Maryland quarterback Kasim Hill slipped outside the pocket and found wide DJ Turner for a 54-yard touchdown.
If you eliminate the explosive plays, the Terps were just 4-for-10 on third down. The absence of defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr was a huge loss early in the game. His presence prevents many big plays which enter the second level of the defense.
Offensive Line Pass Protection inconsistencies
Minnesota’s offensive line performed poorly throughout the day, particularly on the edge. Quarterback Zack Annexstad occasionally held the ball too long, but also faced situations where he had no time to throw.
The Gophers’ offensive line allowed pressure off limited rushes, too. Maryland rushed three, while dropping six and still managed to get heat on Annexstad. Annexstad was sacked four times as right tackle Sam Schlueter lost multiple reps on the edge. On a few occasions Minnesota had six protectors in the game, but still allowed free rushers to get home. This is never a good recipe for success. It limited the ability to create explosive plays, as the Gophers averaged just 3.7 yards per play. The Gophers’ offensive line simply had no answer to the physicality. Maryland wasn’t even sending pressure packages or complex fronts to cause headaches.
The Gophers were also unable to run the football effectively because they didn’t control the line of scrimmage. Rushing lanes were almost non-existent as the Minnesota averaged just 2.4 yards per carry. Almost any yardage accumulated by running back Mohamed Ibrahim was picked up after contact. If Minnesota wants to compete in the Big Ten, the offensive line has to start winning man-on-man battles.
The Annexstad-Bateman Connection
Quarterback Zack Annexstad was also slightly off in this game in terms of accuracy. His passes were occasionally sailing high at both the vertical and intermediate levels. He also underthrew several throws as he rushed his delivery. Annexstad finished the day 14-for-32 with 169 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. It’s worth wondering how much an ankle injury was impacting him. He was often throwing off his back foot and looked like he was struggling to transfer weight. Annexstad took so many shots in this game and they continued to pile up.
The only sign of life came in the first half.
When the passing game has been struggling to click this year, Zack Annexstad has turned to true freshman wide receiver Rashod Bateman. On the final drive of the half, he found Bateman up the sideline for 29 yards. Two plays later, Bateman gained separation off a fade and Annexstad delivered a beautiful back shoulder touchdown pass. Bateman tracked the throw and managed to get his foot down in-bounds to complete a key touchdown drive.
However, out of halftime, a free rusher entered the backfield and Annexstad threw an errant pass directly to linebacker Tre Watson. He returned the throw for a pick-six, quickly shifting the entire landscape of the game.
In addition to mistakes, there were also moments where the Gophers ran the ball in long down situations when they needed points. They also lost ground by frequently running a tunnel screen for negative yardage. Two of those poorly executed screens were the result of missed blocks by wide receiver Tyler Johnson, who posted just two catches. He also dropped one pass, after grabbing three touchdown receptions last week.
The Gophers allowed too many explosive plays and lost the battle in the trenches on both sides of the ball. It was clear how much they struggled at the point of attack. The physicality was just too much to handle. This was a concern entering the season and it was magnified in the first Big Ten game as Minnesota struggled to compete.