The Gophers football team has completed two of three legs on Redemption Tour 2019.
After suffering blowout losses against Illinois and Nebraska last year, Minnesota repaid them with 180-degree beatdowns earlier this month.
Now, a final stop on this circuit comes Saturday when No. 17 Minnesota (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) plays host to Maryland (3-4, 1-3) at TCF Bank Stadium. The Terrapins stuffed the Gophers 42-14 in last year’s Big Ten opener.
When asked about last year, the Gophers clam up or deflect, preferring to tuck most of those memories into their subconscious and focus on the here and now.
But offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarroccca made a rare acknowledgement this week that the past does, in fact, exist.
“It’s hard not to — I know it’s a different team and a different game, both teams are different — but it’s hard for me not to watch them on film and remember what happened to us last year against them,” Ciarrocca said.
That comment showed the offense felt its own pain in three of their Big Ten losses in 2018 — when the majority of the blame went to an exposed defense which was run over, run around and scored on a lot.
The Gophers’ defense gave up 47.6 points and 376 rushing yards per game against Maryland, Illinois and Nebraska last year. Against the Illini and Cornhuskers this year, those numbers were reduced to five points and 121 rushing yards. Now, there’s one game to go for a full turnaround.
A main difference is new defensive coordinator Joe Rossi replacing Robb Smith, who was fired. Rossi’s defense has had night-and-day results from a year ago with a similar 4-3 scheme.
“I don’t think it’s anything fancy,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. “Everybody is doing their job, everybody understands their job and everybody wants to do their job.”
In its 42-14 rout of the Gophers in College Park, Md., last September, Maryland scored all of its points without running a single play in the red zone on a scoring drive. They had touchdown plays of 81, 64, 54, 36, 26 and 21 yards.
This year, Maryland, which has lost four of its past five games, has 42 plays of 20-plus yards, which ranks in the top 20 in the nation. But Minnesota has buckled down on such plays, allowing only 18, which puts the Gophers in the top 10.
The importance of limiting big plays has been a focal point for the Gophers all season. And ramifications of how breakdowns can come back to bite you were on display late in last week’s 42-7 win at Rutgers.
With the Gophers leading 42-0 in the fourth quarter, backup linebacker Braelen Oliver didn’t fill the “B” gap, and Rutgers running back Elijah Barnwell busted off a 40-yard run through that hole. The Scarlet Knights scored four plays later to break the shutout.
Fleck mentioned that play as a told-you-so example of how big plays often lead to points, either immediately or in a couple more plays.
After Fleck stressed the word “understanding” on Monday, Rossi explained his coaching approach Wednesday.
“It’s got to be taught the right way,” he said. “It’s got to be the amount of information is at a level that people can diagnose it. The big thing for us is we always start with the end in mind.”
Introducing opponents’ concepts comes in spring practice or fall training camp to plant the seed with players’, so when it’s reintegrated during the game week, it’s remembered.
“It’s always easier for a guy to go back and recall something,” Rossi said. The player says, “ ‘Hey, yeah, I remember that when we did that in training camp.’ OK, it’s easy to go. It’s a combination of the content, it’s a combination of the teacher and it’s a combination of the lesson plan.”
It’s also experience, senior defensive end Carter Coughlin said.
“I think the biggest thing is in our defense, (everyone) knows exactly what their role is, and I don’t think that has been the case in the past,” he said. “But I just think that comes with experience and having guys like myself and seniors that have been in the defense now for three years.”
That experience could be lacking at the Gophers’ crucial weak-side linebacker spot, with Kamal Martin expected to be a game-time decision. If he can’t play, second-year players Oliver and Mariano Sori-Marin will be called on.
This is where the leaders communicating responsibilities and being gap-sound will be crucial. To this end, Coughlin said he watched film with linebacker Thomas Barber and safety Antoine Winfield Jr., after Tuesday’s practice.
“Thomas was giving me calls,” Coughlin said. “I was calling stuff out and Antoine was echoing it and doing his stuff as a safety. But the entire defense does that, so that has been a huge difference for us.”
Terrapins running back Anthony McFarland, a second-team all-Big Ten selection last year, comes back after missing last week’s 40-14 loss to Purdue because of an ankle injury. He torched the Gophers last year, averaging 18 yards per carry. Fellow tailback Javon Leake is averaging 8.5 yards per carry this year.
“They have elite skill,” Rossi said. “Their running backs are home-run hitters. If they get an open gap and they get in the open field, they can go.”