Big Ten Opener Looms Large For Improved Terps

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- The Terps take on Purdue Oct. 1 at UMD.

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Perry Hills’ class schedule prohibits him from attending D.J. Durkin’s weekly media luncheon on Tuesdays, but it certainly didn’t keep the Maryland senior quarterback from being a major topic this week.

Hill injured his shoulder in the second overtime at Central Florida two weeks ago and Durkin said he was “probable” for the Purdue game this Saturday at 3:30 at Capital One Field at Byrd Stadium.

Freshman quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome came off the bench to score the game-winning touchdown in dazzling fashion in the 30-24 victory at UCF, but it wasn’t lost on anyone the gritty effort Hills turned in during the extra periods, including his own 5-yard scoring run. “Perry always sets the tone for us,” said senior tackle Michael Dunn of a Maryland running game that took over in overtime. “As an offensive line member, what he does just makes you want to work harder for him.”

Hills was having his roughest day passing so far this season, so he just seemed to pull the ball down, put his shoulder down and muscle the Terps to the tough road win. He finished with 29 yards rushing despite being sacked five times.

Durkin wasn’t going to make a mountain out of Hills’ injury heading into the Big Ten opener. “I thought offensively we executed really well in the overtime, and I saw the guys had a calm over them, like ‘let’s go win this,’” said Durkin. “That was the biggest thing to me. Perry, that guy has been through some adversity, and to see him respond with that kind of confidence, that’s a guy that been through it before. That’s how you want your whole team to respond.”

Dunn and Durkin also credited Hills with one of the more remarkable statistics in college football this season – through three games, Maryland’s high-powered, fast-paced offense has nary a turnover, one of just two schools in the country (Western Michigan is the other) to share that distinction. In fact, it has been since the 1999 season that Maryland hadn’t thrown an interception through it’s first three contests.

“Perry does a nice job with the ball and you have to credit him and the skill guys,” said Dunn. “(Not turning the ball over) is our No. 1 key to winning every week in our offensive goals.”

It doesn’t hurt that ball security has been a priority in coordinator Walt Bell’s offense since Day One, either. Dunn explained that if someone fumbles or throws an interception in practice, the entire offense runs as punishment. He smiled when asked if that meant the linemen stay on the skill players about possessing the pigskin and keeping the turnoverless streak alive.

So far, so good, though the big, bad Boilermakers will test the Terrapins in that regard. Purdue (2-1) produced four takeaways in a season-opening win over Eastern Kentucky, but has had anymore since, even in last week’s 24-14 win over Nevada. It’s worth noting Purdue finished September with a winning record for the first time since 2012.

Maryland, meanwhile, comes out for Homecoming looking to go 4-0 for the first time since 2013, when the Terrapins got off to a 4-0 start, before finishing 7-6. The schedule gets tougher from here, but Maryland’s mantra has long been one game at a time, heck, one practice at a time under Durkin, and there’s a different feel around the program these days.

“This has just been a lot of fun,” said Dunn. “Basically, it’s a new season for us with Big Ten play starting. Every game means a little more and counts a little more. We’re excited for that.”

Not All Good News

While Hills looks good to go this week in practice, Maryland did lose a player at Central Florida when senior safety Denzel Conyers went down with a torn ACL. He had a career-best eight tackles at UCF before the injury, and had just moved into the starting lineup this season after a working into some playing time last year.

Durkin said the St. Petersburg, Fla., native would have surgery “shortly.

“We feel for Denzel. He was a senior player and playing really well for us. He was and will continue to be a great member of our team, just in a different way now.”

The Terrapins did add a player this week, though. Senior running back Wes Brown will see his first action this season after sitting out the first three games for a violation of team rules carried over from last year.

Brown, with 317 yards, a 4.5 average per carry and three touchdowns, was the Terrapins’ leading returning running back from a year ago. He debuts at second on the depth chart this weekend, but behind co-starters Trey Edmunds, Kenneth Goins, Jr., and Ty Johnson, and alongside co-top-subs Jake Funk and Lorenzo Harrison in the embarrassingly deep Maryland backfield.

“Wes has been outstanding the whole time,” said Durkin. “If you came out to a practice this season, you’d have no idea he wasn’t able to play in the games, just the way he practices and approaches it. I’m really proud of Wes. He has taken on a leadership role on our team.”

Durkin said the Terrapins would continue to “utilize that depth” at running back that has allowed Maryland to chew up 266.7 yards per game on the ground, a figure that ranks 11th nationally and second in the Big Ten.

Seven Terrapin ballcarriers, including Hills and Pigrome, are averaging better than 20 yards per game, and eight rushers are averaging better than six yards a rush. Harrison has become the first true freshman to score a touchdown in each of his first three games since Josh Allen did it in 2002. The diminutive speedster can become the first Terp since quarterback C.J. Brown (2013) to score a rushing touchdown in his first four games, if he finds the end zone this Saturday.

Dunn sees that commitment to the running game as part of the identity stamp Durkin is putting on the program. “That’s who we want to be and we’re still improving,” said the senior tackle who played on the right and left side last game.

Durkin thinks the team’s depth on offense, using 6-7 receivers and 5-6 running backs, along with the depth on the offensive line has been a key to that unit’s success. It’s the competition in practice that’s pushing players to excel.

So when Hills scored in overtime at UCF, he became the seventh different Terrapin to score on a rush this season and that’s in just three games. The last time the Terrapins had that many different players record rushing touchdowns in an entire season was 2002.

Durkin talked about the emphasis on the run and one of the pitfalls the team might have to overcome against a Purdue defense stacked up front to limit the run. “By us being effective in the ground game it hurts and gets us off track when we have negative plays, especially early like on first down. We had that a couple of times (at UCF) and that forced us to throw a little more than we wanted to in certain situations. We don’t want negative plays and loss of yardage.”

The strong running game has also translated in the red zone where Maryland is scoring on 93 percent (13-of-14) of its opportunities. Maryland has six touchdowns in those situations.

Pass Rush is Key

Durkin said the Terrapins used the bye week to “improve a lot of areas” before focusing in on Purdue. One specific area was in the pass rush that was exposed at Central Florida by loosey-goosey freshman quarterback McKenzie Milton, who came off the bench and threw for 250 yards and two touchdowns.

Senior defensive end Roman Braglio, who had three tackles and recovered a fumble at UCF, talked about the priorities vs. Purdue and talented sophomore quarterback David Blough, who leads the Big Ten in total offense (334.3 yards per game, 315.3 through the air).

“A big emphasis was containing the quarterback,” said Braglio of practice last week. “We worked on rush lanes and things like that. We’ve got to get to the quarterback more, that’s been an emphasis on the d-line, trying to get sacks, disrupt the ball, anything we can do.”

Blough is completing 60 percent of his passes and has thrown five touchdowns this year. “He has a really live arm,” said Durkin. “He can make all the throws. There are some impressive throws on tape…there are a couple of times where he’s getting hit in the face, standing in the pocket, delivering the ball in tight windows. He can do that…and he’s also got escapability. He can create with his feet, buy time, scramble and make plays out of the pocket down the field.”

But Blough also had seven interceptions through the first three games and even without Conyers, the Terrapins have a secondary that should be a primary concern for opponents with coverage aces like Will Likely, JC Jackson and Alvin Hill patrolling there.

“We’ve got to do a great job of team defense against the pass,” continued Durkin, “not just our coverage down the field, but the pressure up front or just maintaining the rush lanes to not give them time to scramble out, which is something that really hurt us in the last game.”

The Terrapins are seventh nationally with a +1.67 turnover margin per game, and forced four turnovers by the Knights. Jackson got his first career interception and the Terps also gathered up three fumbles, including a big one in the second overtime.

Junior Josh Woods will step in for Conyers at free safety. The two had been alternating at the position, and Woods looks ready for even more duty. He had a team-high seven tackles in the season-opener with Howard.

“Josh has looked good,” said Durkin. “He and Denzel were competing for that spot, split some time. Josh came in the UCF game and a really good job. Josh, he really cares. He’s conscientious. He wants to make sure he does the job right. He’s in there constantly trying to learn and I think he’s playing at a high level for us.”

Another Terp playing at a high level is junior weakside linebacker Shane Cockerille. He is leading the Terrapins with 25 tackles and ranks fifth in the Big Ten with his average of 8.3 stops per game. Cockerille, the former college quarterback and fullback, came up big at Central Florida, posting a career high 14 tackles, including a tackle for loss.

Another player who broke out at UCF was junior BUCK end Jesse Aniebonam, who had three tackles for loss in that game and seemed unblockable in the overtime session. His 1.5 tackles for loss per game is a figure ranked fifth in the conference. On the season, he has 4.5 TFLs and 2.5 sacks, playing the hybrid DE/LB position.

The big change defensively, according to Braglio, has been in attitude. “It’s a mentality, the way we run to the ball, the way we attack the ball. We’re just aggressive getting on and off the blocks.”

Maryland is allowing just 17 points per game, tied for fifth in the Big Ten, and is ranked seventh in rushing defense in the conference, allowing 155.3 yards per contest. They’ll face a challenge this week against Purdue’s Markell Jones, who is averaging 105.3 yards per game and 5.2 per carry. He had 124 yards on 22 rushes last week in the 24-14 win over Nevada.

“He’s a tough kid, he can break tackles,” said Braglio. “We’re going to have to do a good job tackling.”

Braglio also said he’s looking forward to playing in front of a big, enthusiastic crowd Saturday for Homecoming. “We’ve been gone for a month and playing at home is awesome. We don’t practice on the field and so it’s special. We only step on that field for games. It’s homecoming and it’s my senior year so it’s a big deal for me.”

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