COLLEGE PARK, MD. – Zack Annexstad made his first college start on the road, in his first Big Ten game, on Saturday. He found himself trying to rally a young team from behind against an intense pass rush while playing on a bad ankle.
This became a recipe for disaster. The Gophers football team lost to Maryland 42-13 in the kind of flop that is familiar and haunting for Minnesota fans of all ages.
The walk-on freshman completed 14 of 32 passes for 169 yards and one touchdown. He was sacked four times. He limped, and threw inaccurately, frequently.
As Annexstad was leading the Gophers to three nonconference victories, his coach and teammates praised his composure. The problem with composure is that you need a crisis to prove it exists.
Now we'll find out just how poised he is. Annexstad is leading a team that raised expectations in the first three games, and now could be facing a three-game losing streak, with games against Iowa and Ohio State up next.
The sugar rush of three home victories has been replaced by the nausea of a crushing loss to a team that finished 2-7 in the Big Ten last season and last week lost to Temple by 21 points.
Annexstad is renowned for asking coach P.J. Fleck, during anxious moments, "Isn't this fun?" It had been, until Saturday, when the Gophers looked more like a promising collection of freshmen than a fully formed team.
"He had a lot of pressure on him tonight," Fleck said. "Stood in the pocket, got out of the pocket, had some really good throws and some really bad ones. This is where failing is growth."
Annexstad led the Gophers on a drive late in the first half, hitting talented freshman receiver Rashod Bateman with a 17-yard touchdown pass that made it 21-10. The Gophers received the second-half kickoff with a chance to make Maryland nervous.
Instead, Annexstad threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown, and the competitive portion of the contest was over.
"Down 14-0, everything changes," Fleck said. "That puts you in a very different position. They did a great job of changing the game immediately.
"A lot of pressure in his face all day. Then people say, 'Why didn't you get him out of the pocket?' Well, he's got a hurt leg. You want him to hobble out of the pocket?"
The loss reflected the reality of Fleck's roster: Playing freshmen can be seen both as a sign of promise and a lack of depth.
He has two flashy stars — defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. and receiver Tyler Johnson. Winfield left because of an injury in the first quarter. On the next play, Maryland scored on a 26-yard run. Johnson did not catch a pass in the first half, while younger receivers Chris Autman-Bell and Bateman were shining.
Fleck regretted that he couldn't move Annexstad around more, to help him avoid the rush. "We've got to get that [leg] healthy," Fleck said. "It's a good thing, with the bye week, to get him healthy and get him to move around a lot more. Because he's really good with that.
"They probably knew that, and they put a lot of pressure internally on him. Our pocket was not a pocket all night, or all afternoon. You've got to give them a lot of credit. They got after him all afternoon. But he's got to grow up."
Fleck is 2-8 in the Big Ten. His teams have been outscored 112-13 in their past three conference games.
Saturday, Annexstad was not made available for interviews. In an illogical move, Fleck has refused to let his quarterback talk to the media — except for ESPN. So he deems Annexstad ready to play football on national television and talk on national television but not to answer questions for local reporters.
Talking about failure, you could argue, is growth.
Jim Souhan's podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org