Maryland football begins Big Ten Conference play Saturday on the road against Minnesota. The Terps will be starting their third quarterback of the season. The Baltimore Sun discussed the matchup with Golden Gophers beat writer Andy Greder of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, who answered five questions:
Given the tumultuous end to Tracy Claeys' season-plus as head coach, would Minnesota fans have embraced any kind of change or do you think it took someone like P.J. Fleck to make them turn the page?
That’s a loaded question. On the one hand, the six-year run of Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys returned the program to a high level of success both on and off the field. They won eight or more games in three of the last four seasons, and in the one year they slipped to six wins, their high Academic Progress Rate propelled them to a bowl game when there weren’t enough eligible teams. Things had been in good hands.
But the very public response to allegations of sexual assault — the response from the university and the program — produced an untenable situation where change seemed inevitable, at least in the eyes of the administration.
That said, Fleck’s enthusiasm has caught the attention of even casual observers of Gophers football. His track record at Western Michigan and ingraining culture of players being responsible on multiple levels off the field has set a high bar for the standards he expects to hold this program to going forward.
With how soft the schedule has appeared so far — playing two of three teams at home and now facing an opponent for a second straight game that is dealing with quarterback injuries — is the jury still out on how good the Gophers are despite their 3-0 start?
Absolutely. This Gophers team has questions at key positions, particularly entering Big Ten play. They are thin along both lines and in the defensive secondary. The two-quarterback situation has solidified on Conor Rhoda. The strong defense, which picks up the calling card established by the previous staff, has carried this team to its 3-0 start.
We still need to figure out if Rhoda and an unproven collection of wide receivers can withstand the rigors of a nine-game conference schedule, especially when opponents stack the box against their proven running game. The defense will also be tested through the air and its line depth will be under the microscope against the power running teams in the West.
A year ago, Conor Rhoda was an emergency first-time starter against the Terps and proved himself to be an effective game manager. Even with the three games under his belt, is that still the case?
Rhoda has grown with the first consistent string of experience he’s obtained in his collegiate career. Fleck called on him to lead the team on the road at Oregon State, and he answered the bell. They have relied on the running game, with at least two-thirds of play calls going to the outstanding duo of backs in Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, as well as Kobe McCrary when they got dinged up against Middle Tennessee State. A lot remains to be proven in the next two-plus months.
The formula to win with a good running game and a dominant defense works well in the NFL, but do you think it will work in the Big Ten if the Gophers don't get more than four yards a carry from their running backs?
This is the ultimate proposition for the Gophers this season. Wide receiver Tyler Johnson has had a strong pair of games to start the season, but had only two catches for 14 yards against Middle Tennessee. They need for him to return the explosive playmaker he was against Buffalo and Oregon State. Plus, the Gophers need to have other receiving options step up. Tight end Brandon Lingen hasn't found his footing after multiple injuries, and big receiving target Rashad Still has been absent or silent.
With everything going on in Minneapolis this weekend with the Twins and the Vikings playing in town, what kind of atmosphere should there be for a team that's not considered much of a traditional rival?
The Gophers have had announced attendance of about 43,000 for the first two home games, which is below the 50,805 the on-campus TCF Bank Stadium can hold. Like you said, this is a crowded sports market with the Vikings and the Twins surging into the second AL Wild Card spot this week. Not to mention the Lynx in the WNBA finals, and the Jimmy Butler era with the Timberwolves set to begin and this perpetually being the “State of Hockey." Saturday’s kickoff of 11 a.m. typically has the college students groggy this early and the casual observers remaining on their couches, all waiting to see if Fleck’s start will continue undefeated.