MINNEAPOLIS — Before quarterback Max Bortenschlager began the most important drive of his young career in Maryland's Big Ten opener against Minnesota, a few teammates approached and said their piece on the sideline. Never mind that the score was tied with just 3:54 remaining. "This is your time," he heard over and over, so he took the field and began barking out play-calls through the hum of hostile TCF Bank Stadium.
Bortenschlager had already blocked out plenty of noise earlier this week. There were whispers of doubt about the recent third-stringer's ability after he was elevated as the starter following season-ending injuries to previous starters Tyrrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill. But Saturday, Bortenschlager did something neither of those players has done: He engineered a long game-winning drive. The sophomore completed several clutch throws to set up a 34-yard touchdown run by Ty Johnson with 70 seconds remaining in a 31-24 victory over the Golden Gophers.
"We had a bunch of confidence. We didn't really flinch," said Bortenschlager, who completed 18 of 28 passes for 154 yards and two touchdowns in becoming Maryland's third starting quarterback to win a game in the first month of the season. The victory was sealed after junior cornerback JC Jackson intercepted Minnesota quarterback Conor Rhoda with 41 seconds left.
Bortenschlager's teammates had answered questions all week about the program's quarterback injury curse, which has wreaked havoc on the position for much of the past five years and claimed the talented Hill with a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in last week's ugly 38-10 loss at home to Central Florida. Bortenschlager struggled mightily in that loss, and as he arrived at a team dinner on Sunday night, he still had "a bitter taste" in his mouth.
"I didn't want to have the same feeling this week," Bortenschlager said.
Several of the team's veterans encouraged players to get into Bortenschlager's ear to bolster his confidence, and they continued to pick him up on Saturday against the country's top scoring defense. Minnesota had allowed just 24 points in three games and was giving up only 59 yards rushing per game entering Saturday, but Maryland (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) quickly surpassed those numbers with a concentrated running attack.
Johnson finished with 130 yards on a career-high 18 carries, while sophomore Lorenzo Harrison added 75 yards and tied a career-high with 17 carries. As a team, Maryland racked up 262 yards on the ground.
That seemed to help settle Bortenschlager, who scored on a seven-yard run in the first quarter and took shots all day to wide receiver DJ Moore, including on a 27-yard touchdown throw that gave the Terps a 14-7 lead with 5:17 left in the second quarter. That throw was keyed by pass protection — a week after Maryland gave up five sacks, the offensive line allowed none.
"I thought our offensive line did a tremendous job protecting him," Maryland Coach DJ Durkin said. "It was a big thing about winning the line of scrimmage going into the game. I think that's the story of the game."
On the flip side of that, Maryland's defensive front allowed just 80 yards rushing and forced Rhoda (13 for 26, 229 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions) to attempt to make plays down the stretch to rally the run-oriented Gophers.
"We knew . . . they were going to be a great running team coming in," senior defensive tackle Cavon Walker said of Minnesota (3-1, 0-1), which averaged 214.3 rushing yards in its first three games. "We were ready."
After the Gophers tied the game at 17 with a touchdown pass from Rhoda to tight end Brandon Lingen late in the third quarter, Maryland responded with an 11-play, 65-yard drive that spanned nearly five minutes. Bortenschlager capped it with a four-yard touchdown pass to running back Jake Funk to make it 24-17 with 11:11 remaining. That marked the first points that Minnesota had given up in the second half all season.
Rhoda converted a 35-yard pass on second and 26 to set up a first and goal late in the fourth quarter. Running back Shannon Brooks scored from one yard out on the ensuing play to tie the game at 24 with 3:54 remaining.
Bortenschlager remained calm as he waited to take the field. Walker approached him and wondered if he would need to say anything to fire up his young quarterback. He realized he didn't need to.
"I did look into his eyes," Walker said. "He wasn't fazed at all. He was ready."
Bortenschlager made three key throws to Moore — who matched a career high with eight catches and gained 90 yards — including on a third down and four from the Minnesota 45-yard line. After Moore picked up six yards, Bortenschlager went right back to the junior wide receiver for a five-yard gain. That loosened up the middle of Minnesota's defense. Bortenschlager knew he could rely on his teammates in that moment, just as he did all week. So he handed off to Johnson on a draw and watched him go untouched for the game-winning score.
"They all had my back," Bortenschlager said. "I knew they had my back, so I had to go have their back and make some plays."
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