While preparing to face University of Central Florida on Sept. 17, the Maryland football team watched high school highlights of quarterback McKenzie Milton. The true freshman was starting his first college game, and the Terps wanted to study his tendencies on film.
This week, coach DJ Durkin’s defense has used similar tactics to learn about Minnesota quarterback Conor Rhoda, who the Golden Gophers announced will start Saturday in College Park, replacing Mitch Leidner.
Rhoda, a former walk-on, has attempted two career passes with the Golden Gophers. The Terps have emphasized pressure and physicality this week to disrupt the reserve as the team tries to rebound from its first loss of the season.
“Adversity introduces a man to himself,” defensive coordinator Andy Buh said. “We had adversity [against Penn State] and we lost the game, which brings adversity into the week, so we’ve been coaching that pretty hard during the week. Our guys have not flinched.”
The news of Leidner’s absence — he suffered a concussion in last Saturday’s loss to Iowa — broke Tuesday morning, but when Durkin took the podium that afternoon, he had learned of the development only about 15 minutes before.
The first-year coach, however, dismissed the notion the Terps held an advantage.
Leidner has averaged 201.2 yards a game and generated buzz as a potential high-round 2017 NFL draft pick entering his redshirt senior season, but Durkin anticipates Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys will prepare Rhoda to fill the void.
“Unfortunately part of the game of football, there’s injury,” Durkin said. “I’m sure he’ll function and operate within their scheme.”
A day later, Buh stood at the podium and echoed the same sentiments. Still, he couldn’t hide his smile when a reporter asked him about the Terps’ pass rush plans against the inexperienced signal-caller.
He paused with a grin spread across his face as he said the Terps will “let the game determine that.” Before he finished his answer, he stopped and smiled again.
“Anyone gets excited when you’re going on a blitz,” safety Darnell Savage Jr. said. “It’s just a mentality. You just got to be excited where you’re going on a blitz because it’s a chance to make a huge play.”
The coaches lauded the defense’s pressure against Purdue on Oct. 1, saying every defender on the field blitzed at least once in the 43-point blowout victory.
Last weekend against Penn State, meanwhile, Buh said the Terps “free-lanced” on assignments, trying to cover up mistakes after the unit surrendered a first-drive touchdown.
Buh said the Terps made mistakes in past weeks, but opponents hadn’t targeted the players’ miscues. The Nittany Lions exposed the errors Saturday.
“When one guy makes a mistake, we can fix that,” Buh said. “But when several guys start making mistakes, trying to cover up for someone else’s mistakes, that’s chaos. No coach in America wants to manage chaos on game day. You just don’t have enough fingers to plug all the holes.”
Now, the Terps want to capitalize on the Golden Gophers’ gaps. In addition to playing without Leidner, Minnesota starting right tackle Jonah Pirsig will also miss the game with an injury.
To exploit that advantage, the defense has reverted to preseason drills. Coaches have harped on the players to perform within their assignments and trust their teammates to do the same.
But the team’s positivity hasn’t dipped despite the first loss in Durkin’s tenure. The staff still greets the players with enthusiasm each morning to ensure the Terps enjoy their work.
The atmosphere will be even brighter, players said, if the team can stifle Rhoda and Minnesota’s offense to earn its second conference win.
“We’re not panicking or freaking out,” Savage said. “We’re not like stressing out or freaking out about anything. It’s football, so our mindset is that we’re going to go out there, we’re going to play hard, and we’re going to have fun.”