COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Maryland head coach Randy Edsall espoused the typical platitudes about a Bowling Green football team that could be a tough test come Sept. 12 at noon at Capital One Field at Byrd Stadium.
Yes, the Falcons (0-1) are coming off a 59-30 loss at Tennessee but even in that defeat, they rolled up 557 total yards against an SEC defense, and it’s obvious they have some weapons to make life rough for a still, just-out-of-the-package Maryland defense that got stronger as the game went on last week.
“They’re a very good offensive football team,” Edsall began at his weekly Tuesday media-gathering “They have four out of five starters coming back on the offensive line. Matt Johnson is a very good quarterback and handles their offense very well. They play very fast. It’s very impressive operation that they have.”
Johnson passed for a career-high 424 yards against 25th-ranked Tennessee, and the Falcons ran 85 offensive plays. It was a big comeback for Johnson, who broke his hip in the season-opener a year ago and was lost for the year.
The Terrapins (1-0) opened with a 50-21 win over Richmond, and had a player making a similar comeback in defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson, who missed 10 games last year after a knee injury. A fifth-year senior, Jefferson broke down what he saw on film of the Falcon’s high-flying system.
“What makes them good is they have a good quarterback who makes good decisions,” he said. “He’s elusive. He extends the play and they’ve got great skill players at receiver and running back. If you can’t stop the run and they can run and pass and do whatever they want, it can be a long day.”
Jefferson and his teammates are out to turn that around on Bowling Green, the defending Mid-American Conference East Division champs. After ranking near the bottom of the Big Ten, allowing 4.5 yards per rush last season, the Terrapins stuffed Richmond, yielding just 2.1 yards Saturday. They also registered four quarterback sacks.
“Everybody has to play technique and be gap-sound, play the right gap,” Jefferson continued. “They can spread you out so we have to be where we’re supposed to be. We have to put pressure on the quarterback so he doesn’t have clear throwing lanes and just pick us apart. Everybody has to lock in and take ownership and do their job.”
The secondary should be tested more than a week ago, too. In particular, 6-3 Gehrig Dieter may be a tough matchup after catching seven passes for a career-high 133 yards and a score last week. He’ll test the strength of the Maryland defense – veteran corners Will Likely and Sean Davis.
Likely is coming off an amazing game that earned him Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week. He broke a 1939 conference record held by Iowa’s Nile Kinnick, Likely gaining 233 yards on eight punt returns to best Kinnick’s mark of 201. Kinnick won the Heisman that year, by the way.
And on defense, Likely had four tackles, including one for loss, and had two pass breakups. He and Davis should see a lot more passes this week out of Bowling Green’s hurry-up spread.
Freshmen Learning on the Fly
A lot of young players saw their first action or their first significant action in the season-opener. True freshman receiver D.J. Moore caught a pass early on that he said really helped him get going.
“Getting that first catch got my nerves and jitters out of the way so I could just get in the flow of the game, and roll from there,” he said of finishing with two grabs for 23 yards. “Saturday was a good experience for me. I got a feel for the (college) game.”
Another true freshman, tight end Avery Graham, also caught two balls for 12 yards, and talked about a great rapport with Terps quarterback Perry Hills. “Perry is a great guy, a great quarterback with a great arm and really knows the offense well. For me, a freshman coming in, he was always there for me. I had the big eyes when the play was called and he would help me with the route in camp. We formed a relationship. He looks for his best matchups out there.”
Graham said he was impressed the work Hills put in before the game, studying those matchups to see situations in which he might have an advantage. Hills showed off that skill on Maryland’s second touchdown. Spotting a corner blitz coming, he shifted his protection and zipped a “hot read” pass to Malcolm Culmer, who broke one tackle and completed a 37-yard scoring play just before the half.
Prior to that big score, the Terrapins had been in the red zone four times and come away with three field goals. “We have to learn how to finish drives off instead of taking field goals,” said Moore. “We had some technique areas we have to address.”
Edwards, a strapping 6-4, 235-pound addition out of Raleigh, NC, thinks part of the answer could be in refining the emphasis on the running game, something the rookie has been told has translated into a lot more two-tight end formations in camp this season. He would like that, meaning more playing time for him along with incumbents Derrick Hayward and P.J. Gallo.
One thing seemed sure on Tuesday, there is no wavering in the offense’s support of Perry Hills, to many a surprise to start the season at quarterback. Hills struggled at times, particularly early but finished a reputable 12-of-21 for 138 yards and two touchdowns, along with one early interception on a deep route he underthrew.
“I think Perry is a great leader and I think he can do a lot of different things on the ground and in the air,” said sophomore guard Mike Minter, coming off his first start. “We were able to communicate effectively as a line and with the quarterback, and get some things moving up front.”
The Terrapins rushed for 341 yards, their most on the ground since 2012. “We had a pretty good day on Saturday,” said Minter. “But we want to get better. There are definitely things we left on the field. Looking at schemes, there are things we could have done better and that’s what we’re focused on going against Bowling Green.”
Minter Making Most of His Moment
Minter is already one of the great feel-good stories of 2015. Very quickly it seemed in camp this summer, he went from walk-on to scholarship player to starting guard when senior Ryan Doyle had to move from left guard back to right tackle for the injured Damian Prince.
“It was like surreal, running out of the tunnel, knowing that I was starting in that game,” smiled Minter. “It was unbelievable. I hadn’t started a game in three years since high school. It was exciting and really a lot of fun.”
Minter, A Severna Park native, missed the entire 2013 season here with a knee injury, and made the transition from playing defense to move over to offense. “I was second string all last year so coming into training camp I had the mentality that I wanted to be the guy,” said the 2014 All-Big Ten Academic selection. “I wanted to work my hardest, work with the guys and do the best that I could do to help the team. I set high expectations for myself. In my mind I wanted to be a starter, I wanted to earn a scholarship and I wanted to make an impact for the team.”
He’s right on target so far. Even though Derwin Gray was cleared to practice this week and his return could start a reshuffling of the line, Edsall hasn’t given any indication that he’s going to change anything.
When coaches said they wanted “the best five guys” along the offensive line to start last spring, the 6-3, 305-pound Minter took the words to heart. And he still does. “Even week to week my position isn’t guaranteed and I know I have to go out there every day Sunday through Friday to earn the right to go out there Saturday and start.”
The fuzzy-faced Minter, a beard disguising a baby-face, almost seems to good to be true. He’ll back to talk to the media more this season, no doubt, because he always makes it about the team and his teammates. In asked how he adapted to the pressure of starting, he turned it to those teammates up front.
“My comfort level comes with the guys around me. I have Michael Dunn to my left, Evan (Mulrooney) to my right, and then I have (Andrew) Zeller and (Ryan) Doyle on the other side, as well as Coach Stud (line coach Greg Sudrawa), all building me up and helping me. They’re telling me, ‘Go out there and show that you got a scholarship for a reason, prove why you’re a starter.’ They really helped me be comfortable.”
Jefferson Movin’ On Up
Jefferson was comfortable, too, but it had been a long time coming. Before Saturday’s starting nod at defensive tackle, the last time Maryland fans had seen the big, 6-3, 289-pound Jefferson on the field was in the West Virginia game a year ago. But on a sweep play just before the half, Jefferson had teammate Keith Bowers fall on his knees. “I heard something then and I went to the sideline and grabbed my brace,” Jefferson recalled. “I played the rest of the game. My knee was buckling but I was playing on adrenaline.”
The next day, though, Jefferson woke up and his knee was completely locked up. X-rays confirmed a torn ACL.
Jefferson had surgery later that month, his season finished. “It was tough,” he said. “I couldn’t walk without crutches for a month. You feel like a liability.”
Saturday, Jefferson showed his reliability. With so much Richmond emphasis on slowing Maryland’s speed rushers on the edge – Yannick Ngakoue and Jesse Aniebonam, Jefferson wreaked havoc in the middle. He had six tackles, the second most on the team, and two of those were quarterback sacks. He assisted another tackle for loss.
“I was definitely amped up,” he said of returning to the field. “It had been a long time coming and I feel like I definitely have a lot to prove this year, coming off this injury. I think a lot of people didn’t expect me to play at a high level, that I might just be going through the motions.”
The senior Pittsburgh native doesn’t really have the luxury of “just going through the motions” anymore. He has a lot of people counting on him, and not just coaches and guys in helmets. Jefferson is married and already the father of three girls, four-year-old Zoe, and the twins, 1-year-old Charleigh and Quinn.
Jefferson hated not being able to help his team during his injury and rehab last fall but also hated not being able to help his literal home team, too. “I was in a lot of pain and I didn’t want them to see that,” he said. “I had a good support system, here at Gossett (Team House) and back home, though.”
His mother, Bahiyyah Jefferson came down from Pittsburgh to help around the house, and his wife, Nadia, is also a constant support. Now Jefferson is back in the game, and not only helping at home but mentoring a lot of young Terps, too. That’s a big part of the Maryland way, particularly among that perennially prideful d-line group.
“Guys look to me for wisdom and information and words of encouragement, how to carry themselves on and off the field, and that’s a big part of what I have to do,” he said. “Guys see me as ‘Grandpa’ or ‘the old man,’ and that’s okay. I learned from guys like Joe Vellano, A.J. Francis, Darius Kilgo, Andre Monroe, Keith Bowers, the list goes on. I was really blessed to have so many guys that I looked up to that taught me so much.”
And none of that was lost on Jefferson when he got down in his stance for the first time in a game in nearly a year. “I think about all I went through to get back to this point, and it’s just a blessing,” said Jefferson. “I just try to give it my all every play. I think it was a good showing coming back but I want to be more dominant and make more plays in the backfield.”
Noting Saturday’s Game
The Terrapins and Falcons have never met despite nearly 200 combined years of football history.
Maryland is 8-1 in non-conference play since 2013, scoring an average of 40.0 points and yielding just 16.2 in those games.
The game is slated for the Big Ten Network, Joe Beninati and former Terps QB Scott McBrien on the call.