A common solution for football teams with quarterback problems is to try to win games on the strength of their defense and rushing attack.
It has worked to perfection this season for Minnesota, which is 3-0 under new coach P.J. Fleck going into Saturday’s Big Ten opener against Maryland in Minneapolis. The Gophers rank second in the league in total defense, first in rush defense and fifth in rushing offense.
Having lost their top two quarterbacks to season-ending ACL injuries in the first three games, the Terps might have to adopt a similar approach. Maryland (2-1) will also have get much better in both areas than it was last week against Central Florida.
After losing freshman quarterback Kasim Hill in the first quarter, the Terps had a running game that came in averaging a Big Ten-best 315 yards held to just 42 yards in what turned out to be a disheartening 38-10 defeat to the Knights.
The defense stiffened when it needed to in a season-opening 51-41 upset win at Texas after sophomore quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome and senior linebacker Jesse Aniebonam were injured. But it wilted against UCF, giving up 428 yards. The Knights averaged 6.4 yards per carry.
While new quarterback Max Bortenschlager will try to prove himself to be more effective and efficient against Minnesota, he will have to also get help from a defense still trying to replace Aniebonam and a running game that was nearly nonexistent against UCF.
“When a guy goes down, you talk about next man up and he’s got to perform at a high level; that’s all true,” Durkin said Thursday. “I think all the players around him have to step up. If that means running game and defense, absolutely.
“If it means receivers running great routes and catching the ball, I think it goes through a lot of things. Special teams have to play better. That was my message to the team: we’ve got to raise our game together … If a guy goes down who was a starter, your margin for error just got a little smaller.”
It is not going to be an easy task, especially on the road.
A year ago at Maryland Stadium, Pigrome struggled against Minnesota in his first college start playing for injured senior Perry Hills. After senior cornerback Will Likely III went down with a season-ending knee injury, the Terps were mauled for 229 rushing yards, including 144 by then-sophomore Rodney Smith.
Senior linebacker Jalen Brooks doesn’t think the mindset of the defense needs to change in light of the injuries to Hill and Pigrome, who tore his ACL against Texas. Given that the Gophers play similarly to last season despite a coaching change, the Terps know what they have to do defensively.
“The running backs are a pretty good 1-2 punch,” Brooks said of Smith and fellow junior Shannon Brooks, who have combined for 435 of Minnesota’s 643 rushing yards and five of the team’s nine rushing touchdowns. “Those kids can make the most out of nothing.”
Said Maryland defensive coordinator Andy Buh, “We definitely have to win the line of scrimmage this week. I think they’re falling back on their strengths. They’ve got a big, powerful O-line. We think a lot of their running backs. They don’t do a lot, but they do what they do really well.”
The Terps are also familiar with redshirt senior quarterback Conor Rhoda, who made his first college start last year against the Terps when Mitch Leidner sat out with a concussion. Rhoda completed seven of 15 passes for 82 yards and a touchdown.
Rhoda, a former walk-on, has not played that much differently this season. In three starts, Rhoda has completed 30 of 46 passes for 456 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Perhaps his best performance came in a road win at Oregon State, where he completed seven of eight passes for 158 yards and a touchdown.
“They’re doing a great job protecting him, they’re doing a great job of dialing up the passes at the right time,” Buh said Wednesday. “He manages the game really well. That's how he was a year ago. … Guys like that, they’re dangerous, too. They’re not taking any chances.”
The Terps will likely do the same with Bortenschlager, as they tried to do last season when he was an emergency starter for Hills at Nebraska. In that game, the Cornhuskers loaded the box and held Maryland to just 11 rushing yards.
The Terps’ only points in that 28-7 defeat came in the second half on a flare pass that wide receiver DJ Moore turned into a 92-yard touchdown. The Terps will need to get the running game going at Minnesota after being shut down by UCF.
“I feel like it’s important for us to establish the run so that the quarterback is more comfortable throwing,” said sophomore running back Lorenzo Harrison III, who led the Terps with 48 yards on 10 carries Saturday. “We can ease up the box for him.”
Buh said the defense can help Bortenschlager’s adjustment to a starting role, as it did when Hill took over for Pigrome against the Longhorns. In that game, the offense helped build the lead back from three points to 17 under Hill, and the defense preserved the win.
“No one flinched in that game,” Buh said. “We knew what we had in Kasim, but he had never been thrown in a game, so we didn’t know. I think if you look back to that situation, it was really similar to the one we had this past Saturday.”
After taking the lead on an early field goal following Hill’s injury, the Terps immediately forced UCF into a three-and-out. It was only after Bortenschlager was stopped on a fourth-and-1 at the UCF 45, and the Knights scored on their next possession, that the defense started breaking down.
”I thought the guys were playing really hard. I thought they were playing a really good first half. I thought it was going to flow the same way going into halftime,” Buh said. “I don’t know why that changed. But obviously the lesson’s been learned and we're going to search forward.”