Minnesota’s Conor Rhoda gets another shot at Maryland

Published 11:35 pm Friday, September 29, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS — Conor Rhoda was pretty convinced his college career was going to end without ever having the chance to start a game at Minnesota.

That all changed last season when starting quarterback Mitch Leidner was sidelined by a concussion, thrusting Rhoda into the huddle for a key game at Maryland. One year later, Rhoda has earned the full-time starting job for the undefeated Golden Gophers (3-0) as they prepare to open Big Ten play against the Terrapins.

Rhoda was preparing to enter the real world this winter when new coach P.J. Fleck called him and asked to play one more season as a graduate student. And even though he only went 7 for 15 for 82 yards in the 31-10 victory, that Maryland game may have been one of the biggest reasons he decided to give it one more shot.

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“Just those memories and those emotions and talking to my family and close friends of mine, those who had been through the journey of those four years with me, and just seeing their happiness and their excitement,” Rhoda said this week when thinking back on his first start. “Then just going through the week and getting to prepare again, knowing I was going to play, it was kind of like a comfort feeling.”

The Terrapins (2-1) have no such comfort. Third-stringer Max Bortenschlager will start against the Gophers after the top two quarterbacks — Tyrrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill — were lost with torn ACLs in their right knees. Bortenschlager entered early last week after Hill went down, and was sacked five times and threw two interceptions in a 38-10 loss to Central Florida.

Optimism can be derived from Bortenschlager getting a full week to prepare as the starter.

“Max has confidence in himself and we have confidence in him,” Maryland coach D.J. Durkin said. “Now we can tailor the game plan to him as opposed to someone else. That will certainly help him.”

Here are some things to know about the Big Ten opener for both schools.

Depth chart

Behind Bortenschlager is junior Caleb Henderson, his who sat out last season after transferring from North Carolina. Ryan Brand is the new third-stringer, a walk-on with no collegiate playing experience.

What a catch

Maryland WR D.J. Moore has 22 catches for 313 yards and four touchdowns this season. He leads the Big Ten in TD receptions, yards receiving per game (104.3) and receptions per game (7.3).

Making an entrance

Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck caught some attention during the bye week when he took a helicopter to a couple of marquee high school football games in Minnesota. He said it was the most efficient way to travel around the metro area on a Friday night. What if he crashed? “Well, I wouldn’t be here right now,” he said. “You would have your new football coach, your seventh in 11 years.”

Pulling redshirts

The Gophers have struggled with injuries on both sides of the ball this season, especially on the offensive line and in the secondary. Fleck said he was going to have to tap into his first freshman class a little more than he would like to do this season. Typically, coaches prefer to sit freshmen to give them one more full year of eligibility in the program. Fleck might not have that luxury. “Playing them early, not necessarily what a coach wants to do but if it’s necessary, we’ll do it,” he said. “And then I look at the positive of everything, right, so to me, if they’re going to gain the experience for the future.”

Happy together

Fleck hosted former Gophers All-American safety Tyrone Carter this week for a little damage control after Carter disagreed with a few things he saw from Fleck. The two were able to find some common ground, with Carter tweeting his support for Fleck. “I think he got a little bit of insight into a decision-making head football coach of what goes into that and why it goes into that,” Fleck said. “And I got an understanding from his perspective, so I get it, but that’s how you solve issues, and I think our society shows that a little bit now with going out there and doing things before people meet.”