The Minnesota Gophers’ plan against Maryland on Saturday was simple: Run the football. And then run it some more.
Following the blocks from an experienced offensive line, Minnesota showed off its never-ending talent stream at running back and rushed for 326 yards in its 34-16 romping of the Terrapins.
Initially, it was a sloppy game for both teams. Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa fumbled away the ball on the Terrapins’ opening drive, and Gophers kicker Matthew Trickett missed a 50-yard field-goal attempt on the ensuing possession.
With the score tied at 3 late in the first quarter, the Gophers defense forced a three-and-out and the offense took over at the 14-yard line. Minnesota marched 86 yards down the field on seven plays -- one pass and six runs -- and capped off the drive with a two-yard plunge from backup quarterback Cole Kramer.
Minnesota never lost control of the game after that touchdown.
Four different players -- running backs Mar’Keise Irving, Ky Thomas and Bryce Williams as well as Kramer -- scored a rushing touchdown. Thomas and Irving, both afterthoughts on the depth chart to start the season, have been thrust into the spotlight as freshmen due to injuries. They answered the call Saturday and combined for 244 rushing yards -- 139 for Thomas and 105 for Irving.
It marked Minnesota’s first game of the season with 300+ yards on the ground, and the first time the Gophers had two players record triple-digit rushing yards since Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks accomplished it against Illinois in 2019.
The Gophers didn’t punt until there was five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
It was such a convincing victory that the Big Ten West standings aren’t too shocking one day later. Minnesota (5-2, 3-1) is now tied for first place in the division with Iowa (6-1, 3-1). The Gophers have two very winnable games the next two weeks against Northwestern and Illinois before meeting Iowa on Nov. 13 at Kinnick Stadium in a clash that could decide the Big Ten West.
But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. Here’s a recap of Saturday’s game:
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Entering Saturday’s game, Thomas -- a redshirt freshman and three-star recruit from Topeka, Kan. -- had tallied 14 carries for 89 yards in his collegiate career. By halftime, Thomas had more than doubled his career production. He posted 101 rushing yards and a touchdown on 14 attempts in the opening two quarters and finished the contest with 139 yards on 21 carries (6.6 average). Four of Thomas’ rushes went for 10+ yards -- including a 38-yard gain in the first quarter -- and eight resulted in a first down or score for Minnesota.
DON’T FORGET ABOUT ME
Suiting up at left guard, redshirt senior Conner Olson set a program record by starting the 52nd game of his Gophers career. The record of 51 was previously held by Payton Jordahl, who was Minnesota’s long snapper from 2015-18. Over his illustrious career, Olson has started 23 games at left guard, 15 contests at center and 14 at right guard. He was named to the All-Big Ten third team last season and was given an honorable mention by the conference for his efforts in 2018-19.
With 10:10 remaining in the third quarter and clinging to a 24-10 lead, Minnesota faced a third-and-6 from Maryland’s 39-yard line. Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan found receiver Mike Brown-Stephens for a 35-yard pickup to move the ball to the Terrapins’ 4. It would go down as the Gophers’ final pass attempt of the day. Minnesota ran the ball 22 straight times to finish off Maryland, leaking the clock and ensuring the Terrapins didn’t have another dramatic comeback in them after they erased a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter and won in overtime verses the Gophers last season.
37:35 -- Sometimes, football just makes sense. Minnesota dominated time of possession with over 37 minutes with the football compared to Maryland’s 22:25. The Gophers had the ball for over 10 minutes in both the third and fourth quarters. Now that’s how you put an opponent away.
THEY SAID IT
“When you watch Bucky [Mar’Keise Irving] make people miss, there is a run for one or two and then the next thing you know is twelve or there is a run for six and seven and then the next one is 30. He has such great feet, and he is only going to get better with time. This kid just got here in June and the sky is the limit for this young man because he is one of the hardest workers we have.” -- head coach P.J. Fleck
“It’s not really who’s running the ball for them, it’s who they have up front. They have a culture up front where they’re going to run the football. It’s a veteran group of players that are big and experienced across the board. [They have] guys with 50 starts. It’s not a surprise that’s what they wanted to do. But for us to have two weeks to prepare and still give up that kind of yardage in the run game is unacceptable.” – Maryland head coach Mike Locksley
“It’s a credit to the entire unit honestly. Being able to go out there and finish the game in that fashion, our running backs definitely instill a lot of confidence in the run game. It’s a pleasure when you have Ko Kieft here on the edge, you always know you’re feeling pretty good out there. It was a good way to end the game from an offensive lineman standpoint, and I always prefer running it instead of passing it, no offense to Tanner [Morgan].” -- Gophers offensive lineman Conner Olson
Minnesota (5-2, 3-1) will pack its bags for a trip to Evanston, Ill., and a clash against the Northwestern Wildcats (3-4, 1-3) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. Northwestern’s latest defeat was a 33-7 loss to sixth-ranked Michigan, although it’s worth noting it was a 10-7 game at halftime. The Wildcats offense features running back Evan Hull, a former star at Maple Grove High School who rushed for 51 yards on 14 attempts in his previous meeting in 2019 against the hometown Gophers.