Preview: Fleck's unbeaten Gophers aim to avoid letdown vs. Maryland
MINNEAPOLIS — As Minnesota waited in the locker room to take the field and face overmatched Rutgers last week, coach P.J. Fleck was collecting his thoughts when a staff member interrupted to report that Wisconsin had just lost to Illinois in the biggest stunner of the season so far in major college football.
Initially hesitant to present a potential distraction to his players, Fleck chose to weave the result into his pregame speech out of respect for the danger of letting up against a lesser opponent.
"This could happen to you," Fleck told them.
Though the Gophers passed the focus test with a 42-7 victory over a Scarlet Knights team on the verge of finishing as one of the worst in Big Ten history, the same message is relevant one week later.
Currently 17th in the Associated Press Top 25, the program's highest ranking in 15 years, the Gophers (7-0, 4-0) host Maryland (3-4, 1-3) on Saturday as 15-point favorites with a prime opportunity to build a two-game lead in the West Division because the Badgers play at third-ranked Ohio State.
With a bye waiting the following week, there is a widespread assumption the Gophers will take an 8-0 record into their game Nov. 9 against No. 6 Penn State.
Not if they lose their edge, though, against a Terrapins team that has plenty of game-breaking players despite some struggles in conference play under first-year coach Michael Locksley.
"Literally on any given Saturday, if you're not at your best, if you don't play to the best of your ability, you can get beat by anybody, no matter who it is," Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan said. "It's always about us. If we don't play our best, no matter what happens, we can get beat."
That's what happened to Minnesota the last two years, albeit with teams not as strong as this one. The Gophers allowed 315 rushing yards, turned the ball over three times and lost 42-13 at Maryland in 2018, and in 2017 they fell 31-24 at home after giving up 262 rushing yards and producing two turnovers.
"They're crazy athletic. Their running backs, if they hit a crease, they take it for 100 yards," Minnesota defensive end Carter Coughlin said. "So we've got to make sure that everybody's in our gaps. Everybody needs to be extremely disciplined."
BACKFIELD IN MOTION
The Terrapins welcome back two stars from sprained ankles, quarterback Josh Jackson and running back Anthony McFarland Jr. Jackson missed the last two games, and McFarland was held out of last week's 34-28 loss to Indiana after gaining only four yards on four carries in the previous game, a defeat by Purdue. Javon Leake rushed for a career-high 158 yards against the Hoosiers, but McFarland was still missed.
"He was as frustrated as I was and as we were as a team that he wasn't at 100%, and to have 100% Anthony McFarland will help the Terps," Locksley said.
STRONG START STATS
The Gophers, who are one of 10 undefeated teams remaining in the FBS, have not been 8-0 since 1941, when they were national champions. Their last 5-0 start in the Big Ten was 1961, the season of their last trip to the Rose Bowl. Including the final two contests of 2018, the Gophers have won nine straight games for the first time since 1941-42. With a 116-31 combined margin of victories over Illinois, Nebraska and Rutgers this month, Minnesota has won three consecutive conference games by 20-plus points for the first time since 1935.
The Terrapins have forced a turnover in 19 straight games, the second-longest streak in the FBS behind Syracuse (21). An interception in the end zone by Antoine Brooks Jr. last week extended the run, though that was hardly solace from a shoddy performance in which they yielded 520 yards in offense to Indiana. The Terps have picked off six passes and recovered five fumbles for a plus-2 turnover differential.
Both teams will wear green ribbon decals on their helmets to promote mental health awareness, a topic that hits close to home for Locksley. He had a green ribbon pinned to his chest during his weekly news conference. Locksley's son, Meiko, was shot to death in 2017 in a suburb of Baltimore. He was 25. Meiko Locksley was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder several years earlier, and the case remains unsolved.
The ribbons, Locksley said, "bring some awareness to mental health and how it affects especially kids from the age of 18 to 22. This is kind of that range where you see it usually kick in. So, I know the athletic department, as well as myself and my family, are proud to take part in a game like this."
Fleck has had speaker, author and advocate Rachel Baribeau talk to his team about mental health each year he's been at Minnesota. She will attend the game, and Gophers players will go through warmups wearing T-shirts with the message, "I'm Changing The Narrative," the name of her nonprofit.