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Five things to look for in Maryland football's Big Ten opener against Minnesota

Five things to look for in Maryland football's Big Ten opener against Minnesota
Temple running back Jeremy Jennings, right, rushes past Maryland defensive backs Antoine Brooks Jr., bottom left, and Darnell Savage Jr. in the first half Sept. 15 in College Park. (Patrick Semansky / AP)

The football matchups with Minnesota since Maryland joined the Big Ten have featured the road team winning the first two times, either as betting or at least perceived underdogs.

Two years ago, the Gophers came to College Park with redshirt sophomore quarterback Conor Rhoda making his first start and left with a resounding 31-10 victory.

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Last season, the Terps went to Minneapolis with third-string sophomore Max Bortenschlager at quarterback and came away with a 31-24 win over the Gophers.

Will the trend continue with Saturday’s Big Ten opener between unbeaten Minnesota (3-0) and a bunch of Terps trying to erase the memory of last week’s first loss, a 35-14 home defeat to Temple?

Here are some things to look for from the Terps at Maryland Stadium:

1. Will Maryland put some pressure on a freshman walk-on quarterback?

When second-year coach P.J. Fleck named Zack Annexstad as his starter Aug. 20, many assumed it was to light a fire under his upperclassmen by the time the Big Ten season began. But Annexstad, a local favorite who used a postgraduate year at the IMG Academy in Florida to improve his stock, has performed better than expected.

Still, Annexstad injured his ankle while getting sacked on Minneosta’s first series in last week’s 26-3 win over Miami (Ohio) and was sacked twice more before coming out in the second half. The Terps need to do what their opponents have done to them — load up on the line of scrimmage and force Annexstad rather than talented freshman running back Bryce Williams to beat them, as Rodney Smith did two years ago.

2. The health of offensive tackles Damian Prince and Derwin Gray, as well as running back Lorenzo Harrison III.

How much of last week’s offensive woes were directly attributable to the absence of the two redshirt senior linemen and a junior who had played well the previous week at Bowling Green is still up for debate, but clearly the Terps missed them against Temple. Since their injuries were not disclosed, it’s hard to predict whether they are serious enough to keep them out again.

If Prince and Gray are unable to go, or if they reinjure themselves Saturday, replacements Ellis McKennie and Marcus Minor have to play a lot better than they did against the Owls. If Harrison is not 100 percent, interim head coach and offensive coordinator Matt Canada has to keep giving the ball to redshirt Anthony McFarland, who had 107 of Maryland’s 132 rushing yards last week. The Terps also need senior Ty Johnson and the rest of the running backs to be a factor.

3. How quick a hook Canada has if quarterback Kasim Hill starts slowly again.

Canada made it clear that there’s not going to be any major changes yet, but if Hill continues to regress from his opening game performance against Texas (17 of 29 for 222 yards and two touchdowns), as he seems to have the past two weeks, Canada might consider giving redshirt sophomore Tyrrell Pigrome more than just a few packages.

The problem is, Pigrome is much more susceptible to making critical mistakes than Hill, with turnovers in each of the past two games. Hill is also too talented and too important to Maryland’s success this season and going forward for Canada to be impatient, but this game is too crucial to not at least consider making a switch, if at least temporarily.

4. Was last week’s performance by the defense an indication that opponents have found a major flaw?

After looking much improved from the past two seasons during the first two games, Maryland’s defense seemed to revert back to the nightmarish performances that culminated with an embarrassing 66-3 home loss to No. 10 Penn State to close out the 2017 season. After seemingly playing more of a pressing, attacking man-to-man defense against Texas and Bowling Green, the Terps appeared to settle into a soft zone against the Owls, with disastrous results.

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Just as Canada wants to put the ball in the hands of his best playmakers, whoever is calling the defensive signals has to put junior Antoine Brooks Jr. and senior Darnell Savage Jr. in the best position to make a difference. With a team that can run the ball as well as the Gophers have, that could be as a linebacker rather than a nickel back or safety, where Savage has shown an ability to make big plays, including a pick-six last weekend against Temple.

5. Whether Friday’s report by the independent medical consultant has any impact on the team’s performance.

Canada said at a news conference Monday his team is focused strictly on its opponent and upcoming game as it awaits the report, which is expected to be released by the Board of Regents late Friday afternoon. But depending on the results of the investigation into Jordan McNair’s death, if there’s anything that might not have been reported already, it could become another distraction for the players to deal with as they get ready to play the Gophers.

Given that this is the first of two external reviews being conducted, with the second looking into allegation of a “toxic culture” under third-year coach DJ Durkin, there’s a chance that last week’s performance is an indication of a team that has lost its emotional edge after two stirring performances to honor the memory of their late teammate.

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