COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- There was a lot of talk about Perry Hills at the Oct. 27 football press conference in the Tyser Tower. And none of it was about anybody but Hills lining up at quarterback for the Terrapins this weekend at No. 10 Iowa.
“It’s nice to know you’ve got a quarterback behind us that will hit a hole full speed and not shy away,” said senior tackle Michael Dunn defining what Hills brings to the team. “He will fight for every yard and as an offensive lineman, you kind of love that.”
Hills, in his first start in interim coach Mike Locksley’s offense designed to his skills, showed off his super powers with 225 yards passing and 124 more running the football. The Terrapin offense came alive with 466 total yards and 30 points, though they were one short in a 31-30 loss to Penn State in Baltimore. That was a far cry from three consecutive previous losses by 21-or-more points.
Hills, the scrappy redshirt junior also had three interceptions and a couple of fumbles, the kryptonite in his hard-charging game, but he reaffirmed his status as this team’s quarterback and a leader for the regrouping program.
“I guess the big thing with Perry is just his grit, his leadership,” said Locksley. “He has the moxie you’re looking for from the position. Obviously he we need to have him execute a little better in the passing game, take better care of the football, but the thing that really stands out is the grit that he shows. He’s a kid that will leave it all out on the field for you.”
And that’s what Locksley is really looking for in the weeks to come, particularly this coming Saturday at at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City Saturday at 3:30 (EST), against the Hawkeyes, enjoying their highest ranking in five years.
In addition to his gritty, gutty effort last week, Hills’ play comes into even sharper focus this week against a defense allowing just 74.1 yards per game on the ground, a figure that ranks third nationally. Iowa has allowed just one rushing touchdown all year, and they’re yielding just 15.3 points (10th in the FBS).
“We’re going to have to be more efficient in the passing game with how they load the box and how their interior front plays,” said junior wideout Amba Etta-Tawo. “There’s definitely going to be opportunities for the receivers to make plays.”
Locksley called them ‘shot’ plays, the Terrapins taking a shot downfield last week when Penn State drew in too close to stop the run. Hills burned them in play-action several times, hitting 19-of-28 passes for those 225 yards and a touchdown. Many of the big plays came on first or second down when the Nittany Lions had to think the run was coming.
Hills hit five different receivers for gains of 24-or-more yards, including a 48-yard strike to Malcolm Culmer and a 43-yard bomb to Taivon Jacobs.
“We’ve got to be able to take the ‘shot’ plays and I think you saw on Saturday we hit a couple of them,” said Locksley. “Off the running game and the play-action is where we’ve got to be really good. Perry hit some of those shots early in the game. Where we get in trouble is when we get behind the chains offensively on first down and second down, and we’re forced into third-and-long situations.”
And that’s just what Iowa likes to do to opponents. Stuff the run and make them play against an unusual “Raider” defense that has six defensive backs, three linebackers and two down linemen. Opponents have 15 turnovers through seven games against the ball-hawking Hawkeyes, and well, Maryland has 17 interceptions in seven games so the math doesn’t work out well unless the Terrapins are executing.
“They don’t make any mistakes, that’s what we noticed when we watched film,” said Dunn. “So we have to do our thing. We can’t be the ones that make mistakes. We have to hold onto the ball. We have to make sure we hold our blocks, and as long as we do that, it should be a good game.”
Locksley thinks the Terrapins might be more up to the challenge than some people think. “We’ve faced some pretty good run defenses the last few weeks in Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State, as well. What we do on offense and what Perry’s skillset brings to the table typically will allow us to run the football because (Hills) forces the defense to play assignment-sound football and helps neutralizes some of the weaknesses we have from a size and strength standpoint inside.”
That said, Locksley added the necessity of the passing game coming along, too, because “we have to have the balance.”
And there are encouraging signs there, as well. The wide receiving corps is coming off their best game as a group. Levern Jacobs had four catches for 50 yards; Culmer, three for 65; D.J. Moore, three for 24, Etta-Tawo, two for 27, and Taivon Jacobs, the one reception for 43 yards.
Foes must now also account for Maryland’s most dangerous player, Will Likely, who saw more snaps on offense, too. He had 30 yards from scrimmage, including one reception for four yards, but it’s not hard to imagine him on deep routes, too.
Players have given Locksley and the coaching staff a lot of credit for holding things together during the recent transition and even reinvigorating many of the Terrapins. “Not only me, but I think a lot of players got back in our groove at the Penn State game,” said Etta-Tawo. “(Coach Locksley) made us remember the fundamentals of the game and why we’re here, and what the game actually means to us.”
As for Hills, Locksley looked forward. “The development of Perry as a passer starts with making good decisions, seeing the safeties, throwing the ball on time, not holding onto the football. Those are things we continue to work on.”
‘Five One Game Seasons’
The road ahead doesn’t get easier for Locksley & Co. Following No. 10 Iowa on the road, the Terrapins are home to meet now 6-2 Wisconsin, and then it’s back on the road to East Lansing, Michigan, and a date with No. 6 Michigan State. Maryland finishes up at home to Indiana on Nov. 21, and then at Rutgers.
“We have five one-game seasons left,” said Etta-Tawo, throwing some more math into the equation. “We don’t want to look to far ahead.”
Team-leader, kicker Brad Craddock looked back a bit to look ahead. “You lose that sort of game (to Penn State) after everything that happened, it stung and it should have stung. You shouldn’t be satisfied with losing but it’s done. Now it’s just Iowa and trying to get this win this week.”
Craddock, who always puts his best foot forward, sees things improving. “I think guys are really hungry and as long as you have that sense of guys wanting to win, and wanting to prepare and doing the right things, then you’re going to have a good shot.”
And facing No. 10 in the nation on the road isn’t a daunting challenge?
“I think you always want to play a big team, the bigger the team the better,” said Craddock. “Those are the teams you want to beat, and you look at our schedule the rest of the year, everyone we’re playing is pretty good.”
It remains to be seen if the Terrapins will be at their full strength Saturday. The Penn State game yielded more bumps and bruises than usual, or at least more that were shared publicly by the new regime. Locksley reported Tuesday that receiver Moore (injured knee) practiced Tuesday, as did defensive linemen Kingsley Opara and Quinton Jefferson, also both banged up.
Only offensive tackle Damian Prince, who injured his ankle, and Craddock, who also had an ankle injury, didn’t go Tuesday morning. Both are expected back Wednesday.
“At the moment I thought it was a lot worse than it was,” said Craddock of being taken out by an on-rushing defender on a kick Saturday. “Right now, I’m still now 100 percent and I didn’t practice (Tuesday) but I’ll be kicking (Wednesday). I should be ready to go Saturday.”
Football In Its Purest Form
Football in its purest form was a mantra Locksley began preaching after he was given the reigns of the program. Anyone that has seen the Terrapins this season could tell the players actually looked like they were having more fun Saturday in Baltimore, playing looser and freer.
Yeah, they made some mistakes but they weren’t tentative. The Terrapins were attacking. The defense was swarming, the offensive execution was better than at any time this season. The play-calling was exciting, maybe even “wide-open,” not coincidentally the words Maryland Athletics Director Kevin Anderson used in describing the style he was looking for in his next football coach.
Mike Locksley was sitting right next to him. And obviously listening.
And so far, Locksley’s players have been listening, too.
“Coach Locks harped on how football was back in the day when you just played, just had fun with it’” said Etta-Tawo of the tale of two Terrapin teams before and after the coaching change. “We harped on that and had fun in practices. He said just have fun and everything would fall into place.”
“I think it’s definitely a great job by our coaches of just keeping our focus intact,” said Dunn. “This could be a really difficult situation for many programs but I really feel like with the players we’ve got and the players we’ve got, we really kept our heads straight and kept looking ahead each week and made sure we came out fighting.”
Etta-Tawo said Locksley told the team after the Penn State loss that they had played 59 minutes, “Just make it 60, and we’ll be alright.” Etta-Tawo said Locksley kept the energy up on the sideline, encouraging the team to have fun and keep playing that way.
Now the Terrapins take to the road and play in a hostile environment for the first time under the new coach. What will it take to compete and even win?
“It takes a lot of focus,” said Etta-Tawo. “It’s like Coach says, it’s us versus everybody there, the whole crowd, however many they got there, 100,000, whatever. He says focus on the small things, play hard and things will work out.”
Actually Kinnick Stadium only seats 70,585, Amba, but we get the point.