Oct. 24—A debate broke out among Gophers football coaches this week: Should a defense forcing a turnover on downs be considered a takeaway just like a fumble recovery or interception?
Minnesota defensive coordinator Joe Rossi unsurprsingly takes the side of the D and states a case for yes, while head coach P.J. Fleck is a stickler to traditional definitions and is in the no camp.
The U defense added a data point to this discussion in a 34-16 win over Maryland on Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium. After two fourth-down stops in their win over Nebraska last week, the Gophers turned over Maryland on downs in a pivotal third quarter. If it is a turnover, there were points off it, too.
Gophers' Bryce Williams scored a rushing touchdown on the opening drive of the third quarter, and on Maryland's first crack, defensive end Esezi Otomewo made a tackle for no gain on third down and short and Terps' tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo's dropped a pass on fourth.
Taking over at Maryland's 34, Minnesota quickly added a TD four plays later, this one from Mar'Keise Irving to effectively put away the Terps.
Fleck said postgame there was no doubt Rossi will want Saturday's fourth-down stop as a turnover and joked it might become a slippery slope to where punts count as turnovers. "I'm just proud of how hard they are playing and he's spectacular, coach Rossi and his staff," Fleck said.
Minnesota (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) has won three straight conference games and easily covered the five-point spread over Maryland (4-3, 1-3). Minnesota's defense has been the backbone.
Before Saturday, Fleck had lost three of four total games to Maryland, but his team blew out the Terps for a second time. His biggest winning margin in a Big Ten game at the U was a 52-10 win over Maryland in 2019.
While what actually constitutes as a turnover can be disputed, what isn't up for debate is the prowess of the Gophers rushing offense. Minnesota rushed for a 326 yards and had two freshmen, Irving and Ky Thomas, each eclipsing 100 yards and scoring a touchdowns. With Williams and wildcat quarterback Cole Kramer, Minnesota scored four on the ground.
Minnesota rushed the ball 23 straight times from the third quarter to the end of the game, and their total was a season high and one better than the last time the U went over 300 against Illinois with 325 in 2020. The freshmen going over 100 was the first time the U had a pair in triple digits since Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks did it versus the Illini in 2019.
Last October, Terrapins quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa had 453 total yards and five touchdowns in Maryland's 45-44 overtime win over Minnesota last October. On Saturday, the U kept him contained with only 189 passing yards, sacked him twice and he rushed for only 10 yards on five carries.
The Gophers forced a fumble from Tagovailoa on the first series of the game, but couldn't capitalize on great field position at Maryland's 49. The U got a defensive pass interference penalty and advanced to Maryland's 32 but the drive ended in Trickett's 50-yard field goal going wide left. An undisputed turnover, but no points to show for it.
The Tagovailoa fumble was the only official turnover and the fourth-quarter stop was the U's sixth in nine fourth-down attempts this season. Whether that is a "turnover" or not is unsettled, but it's made a big difference.
Two Gophers defenders, Nyles Pinckney and Jack Gibbens, or course, are on the side that a fourth-down stop should be a turnover. "Nothing against coach Fleck, but defensively we will take that into the stat book as a turnover," Pinckney said.
Even quarterback Tanner Morgan knows the result can turn the course of a game. "It makes a huge difference obviously with the stop on fourth down, being able to go down and execute and put one in the end zone."