Through seven games of the 2021 season, the Gophers have shown that they can count on three football basics.
- They can run the ball, no matter who they're using at running back. Injuries have shelved Mohamed Ibrahim and Trey Potts for the season, but the three-man committee of Bryce Williams, Ky Thomas and Mar'Keise "Bucky" Irving, plus wildcat quarterback Cole Kramer, has picked up the slack. Minnesota averages 209.9 rushing yards per game, which ranks fourth in the Big Ten and 24th nationally.
- They can stop the run. With a defensive line that rotates eight players and a consistent linebacker duo of Jack Gibbens and Mariano Sori-Marin, the Gophers are allowing 85.7 rushing yards per game, which ranks second in the Big Ten and fifth nationally.
- And when the opponent wants the ball, the Gophers usually have it. Minnesota averages 35 minutes, 2 seconds of possession, which leads the Big Ten and ranks fifth nationally.
All that was on display Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium, where the Gophers (5-2) defeated Maryland 34-16 for their third consecutive Big Ten victory. On the way to improving to 3-1 in the conference and moving into a first-place tie with Iowa in the West Division, the Gophers rushed 56 times for 326 yards, their defense allowed the Terrapins offense only 79 yards on the ground, and Minnesota possessed the ball for 37:35 of the game's 60 minutes.
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck afterward recalled a pregame talk with athletic director Mark Coyle.
"He came into my office right before the game and said, 'Hey, this feels like a run-the-ball game,'" Fleck said. "He was right. He called that. We needed to be able to do that."
The Gophers run game really took off late in the first quarter and early in the second on their first touchdown drive. Runs of 38 yards by Thomas and 21 yards by Irving highlighted six consecutive rushes capped by Kramer's 2-yard TD run for a 10-3 lead.
On the next possession, the Gophers opened with a 12-yard hookup from Tanner Morgan to Chris Autman-Bell before running six consecutive times for 41 yards, finished by Thomas' 10-yard TD run for a 17-3 lead.
The run game was working well because of the Gophers' success on first down. For the game, they averaged 6.8 yards on first down, and the run game accounted for 132 yards on 26 first-down carries. The passing was complementary, too, with Morgan going 6-for-7 for 91 yards on first down, helping loosen the defense.
"Getting ahead of the chains makes a huge difference," said Morgan, whose team converted seven of 12 third-down situations at an average of 5.4 yards to gain a first down. "… Getting to third-and-manageable makes thing a lot easier instead of getting to [third-and-] 7, 8, 9, 10. The percentages are a lot different when its 7 to 10 instead of third-and-1 to 6."
The Gophers had five third-and-shorts (1-4 yards) and converted four. They had only one third-and-long (9 yards or more) and did not convert. They gained an average of 7.4 yards on third down.
Conversely, Minnesota's defense held Maryland to an average gain of 3.1 yards on first down and 3.6 on third down. The Terrapins had four third-and-long situations and converted only 1.
In the second half, the Gophers took the ball-control game to the extreme, holding the ball for 20:25. After Morgan completed three of four passes on the first possession of the second half, the Gophers ran the ball 23 consecutive times to finish the game, relying on their offensive line and the young backs to hammer the Terrapins into submission. Thomas finished with 139 yards on the ground, Irving with 105.
"It all starts up front,'' Morgan said, "and they made it go [Saturday]."