COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Asked what he remembered about playing Wisconsin last year, Maryland center Evan Mulrooney replied the remembered that Johnsonville Brats were a major sponsor at Camp Randall Stadium.
“I was jealous,” said the senior lineman.
It was a funny line but maybe played into a bigger truth. The Terrapins (2-6, 0-4 Big Ten) shouldn’t remember much from last year’s 52-7 Wisconsin win, and it doesn’t have a whole heck of a lot to do with what’s going to happen Nov. 7 when the Badgers show up at Capital One Field at Byrd Stadium for a 3:30 p.m. tilt that again looks like a mismatch on paper.
Wisconsin (7-2, 4-1) has won four games in a row, and has lost only to nationally ranked Alabama and Iowa. Maryland has lost five games in a row and lost a head coach in the process. The Terrapins have regained some passion for the game and they’ve got a “what do we have to lose” mentality going up against another stingy Big Ten defense.
The Badgers, in fact, possess the nation’s top scoring defense, allowing just 11 points a game. Maryland’s offense leads the nation, too, in turnovers. Maryland’s -2.00 turnovers per game (-16 overall) is the worst mark among FBS programs, and the 23 interceptions by Maryland quarterbacks are the most in the country, as well.
The Terrapin offense accounted for just one touchdown in a 31-15 loss at No. 10 Iowa last week, and going against the big, bad Badgers, they have to lock it down and show improvement or it’s not going to be a happy homecoming in College Park.
“We’ve really got to fine-tune our details, pay attention to the little things,” said Terp tight end Avery Graham. “That’s what we’ve been working on at practice, not so much the big concepts. It’s fine-tuning our skills or routes or blocking techniques and leverage. We’ve really been attacking that and we had a great Tuesday practice.”
Limiting those turnovers, a weekly killer lately, has been the other big point of emphasis. “It’s deflating,” said Locksley of preaching patiently to the team. “It’s like raising kids. You keep seeing them make the same dumb mistakes over and over as a parent. You just love them through it hold them accountable. Obviously if they continue to make them you have to make a change. It’s mind-boggling some of the egregious errors we’ve had in terms of interceptions and penalties. They’ve been untimely. That’s what bad teams do. We’ve got a good team.”
Locksley said the team has to “cherish” the football, whether running down the field with two hands on the ball or being wiser in throwing the ball out of bounds. “Those are things we can control,” he said. “We work on ball-security every week. We talk about not making dumb decisions in the passing game. They’ve got to hold themselves accountable for holding onto the football on the offensive side.”
“Turnovers are huge, they kill a drive,” added Graham. “We came out first drive (at Iowa), had a couple of big plays and all the sudden had a turnover. It just kills momentum. We’ve got to help our defense out.”
That defense held Iowa to just 110 yards on the ground, a week after limiting Penn State to just 48 rushing yards. The hope is to make teams go up top, and turn those pass rushers loose – Maryland is fifth in the nation with 28 sacks (3.5 per game) – and force opponents into some turnovers.
It was a late turnover, though, quarterback Perry Hills throwing a tunnel screen where he didn’t pick up a defender in the way, that decided matters at Iowa. Desmond King picked off the pass and went 88 yards for a pivotal fourth quarter score.
Mulrooney, when not dreaming of bratwurst, thinks the Terrapin offense is close to turning things around. “You look at the film and there are just these tiny little mistakes we’re making that will push us over the edge. We’re right at the tipping point of where we need to be. It’s a guy not protecting the ball and turning it over. Or a guy not finishing on a block. Or a guy not executing his route the right way. Anything. It’s just these tiny little things that are holding us back. We’re waiting for one of those games where we come out and fire on all cylinders.”
So now it’s the ready-to-break-out Terrapin offense against the immoveable object, Wisconsin allowing just 4.46 yards per play (13th lowest in FBS). The Badgers have given up just 12 touchdowns in nine games, matching Boston College for the fewest in that many contests. Six Wisconsin foes have scored 10 points or fewer.
Graham said the thinks the receivers are gaining a better rapport with Hills each game, and that should improve a passing attack next to last in the FBS efficiency standings (ahead of only Georgia Southern, a team that has thrown 89 passes all year). Hills is making just his sixth start this season and just his fourth in a row.
Gaining traction won’t be easy against that defense, though. “They’re experienced,” Graham said. “I think they’ve all had 20 starts (in the secondary) and they’ve got time and experience together. They like to play a lot of man so it’ll be a good challenge for all of our receivers to get off press (coverage).”
The Terrapins get a boost with junior Levern Jacobs, the team’s most experienced receiver, back from his sprained knee. Jacobs has a team-best 26 catches for a 10.5-yard average and two touchdowns. Freshman D.J. Moore is next on the team with 15 catches and a 14.8-yard average. He, Graham and Taivon Jacobs also have two scoring catches.
It’s a classic Catch-22 for the Terrapins who have to run the ball to set up the pass but if they can pass better, they can probably run better. And how is that going to play out?
“We’re opening it up,” said Graham. “We’ve got nothing to lose.”
The Young & Relentless
Darnell Savage, Jr., the true freshman cornerback, is typical of a major change in philosophy on the team since Locksley took over. Savage was in for about 20 snaps at Iowa, getting his feet wet more on defense and not just special teams.
“This is something I wanted to do right from the start,” said Locksley. “Once I took it over…playing a bunch of young players, playing guys that hadn’t played a lot, whether it’s five snaps or 15 snaps, or a guy like (sophomore lineman) Ty Tucker running out there on field goals or extra points to block, what happens is it takes away that locker room warrior mentality because now everybody is playing a role, whether big or small.”
Locksley said you build the “core” of a team that way. The top 10 percent are your best players, and another 10 percent might never play. “We have to take care of that 80 percent,” he said. “You’ve seen over the last four weeks since I’ve been in charge I’ve forced us to play guys 10-15 snaps a game. That brings the energy. That brings the spirit. That locks in those guys in practice because they know they’re going to get an opportunity.”
Some starters have seen their snaps drop from 80 per game to closer to 60. “I told our coaches that playing Darnell Savage 15 snaps for Will Likely won’t win or lose us a game so let’s get him in early and bring his energy. And guess what that does for Darnell? It makes him lock in at meetings. It makes him practice his tail off because he knows he’s going to get an opportunity.”
Generally, the Terrapins have played with more energy under Locksley, and he hopes to tap into even more passion this week as Maryland returns home for the first time in 35 days and plays the annual Homecoming game.
True freshman linebacker Brett Zanotto, like Savage, is another example of young players having more opportunity and more impact, literally in Zanotto’s case. Just back from an ankle injury that kept him out a couple of weeks, Zanotto also got in at Iowa on a handful of plays and racked up four tackles, including a shared sack.
Other true freshmen that got snaps at Iowa were running back Ty Johnson, linebacker Mbi Tanyi and wide receiver Jahrvis Davenport. Tight end Avery Graham and wide receiver DJ. Moore both started, as did punter Nicholas Pritchard.
Extra Incentive This Week
There was more talk about the significance of homecoming on the schedule then at any time since Ralph Friedgen was running things. Locksley, who leaves no stone unturned in motivating his Maryland men, obviously has been preaching the significance to his team.
“Homecoming is all about welcoming the Terps back,” said Graham. “This game is more about them than us. The sacrifices they’ve made and they’re why we’re here. We want to send them out on a good note, and have a great tailgate in the parking lot afterward.”
“It’s a day where really we have to play for the people that wore the jersey before us,” said Savage. “There’s a lot of pride. They’re going to be watching us.”
Maryland is 55-33-4 all-time in homecoming games since the first one in 1923. The Terps were 16-0 in such games 1970-85, and they won last year’s homecoming, 38-31 over Iowa.
“Homecoming adds a little more to it because there are some proud traditions of people that that have come through and have worn this uniform,” said Locksley. “I’ve been here a decade now, and I know from the phone calls that I get from some of the guys that have told me they’re coming back for this game, it’s important that we show our alums – the guys that have worn this uniform before – that we do take pride in the name on the front of the jersey and that we will go out and lay it on the line for 60 minutes.”
The Last Word
Redshirt freshman Derwin Gray will be getting his first start Nov. 7 at right tackle. A shoulder injury has slowed his progress but Mulrooney said he has seen the huge (6-5, 328) tackle begin to put it all together in practice. He has also seen the athletic specimen do some incredible things.
“You see him and you’re like, ‘Where did you come from? What made you this size and this athletic?’,” Mulrooney said, shaking his head. “I thought I saw him punch someone’s sternum through the back of their body, it was such a hit in pass protection.”