COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Gophers drop Big Ten opener to Maryland, 31-24

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MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota football team had not been held scoreless in the first quarter this season; they had led at halftime in all three games; and they weren’t forced to make four comebacks in the same contest.

Minnesota also had yet to play in the Big Ten.

The Gophers made three comebacks to tie Maryland at seven, 17 and 24, but couldn’t complete the fourth attempt and lost 31-24 to the Terrapins before an announced crowd of 43,511 Saturday, Sept. 23, at TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota quarterback Conor Rhoda threw his second interception of the game in the last minute to seal the defeat.

With a minus-2 in turnover margin, P.J. Fleck lost his first game as Gophers coach, and the program dropped its third straight Big Ten opener since 2014.

“In the Big Ten, there might be two, three teams that might not be able to play their best football every week and still win,” Fleck said. “We are not there yet.”

The Gophers (3-1, 0-1 Big Ten) entered the game as 13-point favorites and boasted the nation’s top-rated rushing defense (59 yards per game) against Buffalo, Oregon State and Middle Tennessee State. But on Saturday, the Gophers allowed 269 rushing yards to the Terrapins, including a clinching 34-yard touchdown run from Maryland running back Ty Johnson with 1:10 remaining.

Trailing 24-17, Gophers senior wide receiver Eric Carter made a tremendous diving catch on a 35-yard connection with Rhoda to the 1-yard line. It set up Shannon Brooks’ touchdown run on the next play to tie the game 24-24 with 3:54 remaining.

“Out of all that, we didn’t play every well, we didn’t do all those other things, it was 24-24 with two minutes to go and we give up a big run and we don’t get in our gap,” Fleck said.

Earlier in the fourth quarter, Maryland (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) took the 24-17 lead with the first points against the Gophers defense in the second half this season. The run had spanned 108 and 49 minutes against a trio of teams from Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference and the Pacific-12.

Behind third-string quarterback Max Bortenschlager, Maryland converted on 56 percent of third downs after entering the game as one of worst in the nation in that category this season.

The Gophers tied the game 17-17 in the third quarter, with a seven-yard touchdown pass from Rhoda to Brandon Lingen, who scored for the first time since November 2015. Receiver Tyler Johnson had two catches on the drive, including a leaping 25-yard snag to help set up the score.

At the half, the Gophers trailed 17-10, allowing Maryland to gain 247 yards. That total was more in line for what they’ve conceded across three, full non-conference games. They gave up 262 yards to Buffalo, 225 to Oregon State and 230 to Middle Tennessee.

The Gophers’ defense played without starting safeties Duke McGhee, out for disciplinary reasons, and Antoine Winfield Jr., who exited when he re-injured his left hamstring in the first quarter.

Rhoda’s first interception was on a high pass tipped up by receiver Tyler Johnson and into a Terps’ Josh Woods arms deep in Maryland territory. Rhoda hadn’t thrown a pick since the first half of the season opener against Buffalo.

“That’s a play that I expect Tyler to make just because he’s such a talented kid, but I’ve got to make his job way easier,” Rhoda said. “That’s one we’re running off the field, and he’s telling me he got to catch the ball. I’m telling him I’ve got to put it right on your numbers versus making you jump.”

The Terrapins capitalized with an 11-play, 92-yard drive to take a 14-7 lead with five minutes left in the first half. Bortenschlager threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to D.J. Moore, with cornerback Antonio Shenault in coverage.

After Bortenschalger started the scoring with a seven-yard TD run with 2:44 left in the first quarter, the Gophers tied the game at 7-7 with a one-yard score by Rodney Smith early in the second quarter.

“Obviously, the result wasn’t something that we liked today,” Rhoda said. “We thought that was a game we could win, but bottom line we just didn’t play well enough to win that game.”