COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- A lot of coaches would burn the game film from Maryland’s loss at Penn State, a game where Maryland got buried by poor play, and by a Lions team ready to roar.
D.J. Durkin isn’t a lot of coaches.
Oct. 11 at his weekly press conference in the Tyser Tower at Maryland Stadium, Durkin doubled down on the Terrapins’ first loss of the season being a hard lesson for his team. “I feel the same way now as I did after the game, and spoke to the team yesterday about it,” he said. “It is a great learning experience for us. We’re going to treat it that way and attack it. A team is going to hit you in the mouth every now and again, and what you have to do is come together, become tighter and really trust in your teammates and trust in the scheme, and not try to do more than what your job entails.”
As Minnesota (3-2, 0-2) looms large on the schedule for Saturday’s noon kickoff at Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium, the Terrapins are still shaking their heads after their first loss and, more troubling, their first loss of composure. Maryland (4-1, 1-1) already had two road wins on the ledger before bombing at Beaver Stadium, but didn’t show it as they fell behind. “We left a lot of plays on the field, but it’s a good learning experience to bounce back and play a pretty good team like Minnesota,” reiterated senior cornerback Will Likely.
Sophomore center Brendan Moore said the team has moved past Penn State. “We’ve refocused, trying to push forward, get back to basics and do what we do best.”
Asked if there was a sense of urgency after the team’s first loss and looking ahead to a schedule that grows more challenging, the center snapped back, “The way Coach Durkin runs his program there’s always a sense of urgency whether you win or lose.”
Senior quarterback Perry Hills has some urgency. He was knocked from a second game in the young season, injuring his right, passing shoulder. Durkin said the tough-as-nails Hills is “day-to-day,” and the Terrapins will use the entire week to evaluate him and make a decision.
“I don’t know if there’s a tougher guy out there than Perry Hills,” said Durkin. “Perry was fighting like crazy and almost angry trying to get back in (the Penn State) game. I made the decision that I didn’t think it was in his best interests as a person to go back in there, as well as for us as a team. That was my call on it. He wasn’t equipped to go do that.”
But telling Hills such a thing isn’t easy. The former high school wrestling champion has fought for his job at Maryland since his freshman season, and that competitiveness is why teammates and coaches love him. Now, if the Terrapins could just get him to tone it down a bit – for his own good.
“We’re trying,” said Durkin interrupting a question on that topic. “Part of our offense is the quarterback running the ball and that’s not going to change. But you can avoid hits. You can step out of bounds instead of lowering your shoulder and trying to get two more yards. You can slide as opposed to taking a hit. We’ve had all those conversations and we’ll continue to.”
Coaches aren’t the only one getting in Hills’ earhole. “We do joke about that all the time,” said Moore. “’Perry, maybe you should slide.’ But as offensive linemen we get hit and hit every play, and it’s kind of refreshing to see a quarterback that isn’t afraid to do that. It would be nice for him to slide every now and then, but I like the character it shows.”
Freshman Tyrell Pigrome, who hit 5-of-9 passes for 28 yards and rushed for another 39 yards at Penn State, would get the start if Hills can’t go. Pigrome is exciting in the read option but Penn State exploited his lack of experience passing to take away most of his options downfield.
Hills by the way, popped into the Big Ten passing efficiency statistics this week at No. 4 in the conference. He is 50-of-80 with two interceptions, six touchdowns, 622 yards and a 62.5 completion percentage for a total ranking of 147.6
While Pigrome will be better prepared his next opportunity, that opportunity might not come this weekend. Everyone in Gossett Team House expects Hills back on the field Saturday.
Minnesota’s QB or Not QB
While Maryland’s quarterback situation is somewhat murky, the Golden Gophers got bad news with the Oct. 11 announcement that starting quarterback Mitch Leidner was out for Saturday’s game, under concussion protocols. Leidner is sixth in the Big Ten with 201.2 passing yards per game, and Likely thinks he is one of the better quarterback in the conference.
Redshirt junior Conor Rhoda, who has thrown three passes during his college career, will make his first start. The former walk-on won the back-up job with his consistency in the preseason, particularly his ability to handle the reads in the Pistol offense Minnesota employs.
“Rhoda likes to sling the rock,” said Minnesota wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky. “We’ll tape our fingers this week.”
Wolitarsky is a big (6-3, 220-pound) target, fourth in the Big Ten with 5.8 receptions per game, and with 29 catches overall for a 13.1-yard average and three touchdowns. At their best, the Golden Gophers like to run the ball to set up the pass, much like Penn State did last week to great affect.
And like Maryland, the Golden Gophers will surround their quarterback with talented runners. Three different Minnesota backs have rushed for 100 yards in a game this season – 5-11, 205-pound Rodney Smith got 125 against Oregon and 104 at Penn State; 6-0, 210-pound Shannon Brooks also got 100 at Penn State, and big 6-1, 235-pound Kobe McCrary ran for 176 against Indiana State.
“Minnesota is a very balanced offense,” said Durkin. “They run the ball extremely well. They have two tailbacks that run the ball hard. You see them breaking a lot of tackles. They run the Pistol scheme and they present some problems for the defense.”
Likely said Minnesota uses motion to influence a defense and get opponents out of position. Last week, Maryland defenders often took themselves out of position, not controlling lanes and over-pursuing from bad angles and under-pursuing, perhaps the most disappointing part of the 38-14 loss in Unhappy Valley.
“We didn’t play at our effort level this past game,” said Durkin. “You watch thus far this season, there are four games you see a team playing really hard. Every game we even got a little better, played a little harder. That’s something we emphasize a bunch. In that game, it wasn’t the same effort level. And effort overcomes and makes up for mistakes, too, and we didn’t give ourselves that opportunity.”
Likely, a team leader, talked about having quality practices this week and moving on mentally to Minnesota. “We know that we have to come out and play well. It’s going to be a big week for us. We have to do the little things, stay composed.”
Durkin said the Terrapins had one of their best practices Monday night, something he was counting on from this team. “They responded the way you hoped they would and would think they would. We have a team full of guys that really, really care deeply about what goes on about one another, that want to do well.”
One Terp doing particularly well is Buck end Jesse Aniebonam, who was nicked up Saturday, but ready to go this week. The junior’s 5.5 sacks are tied for the Big Ten lead and rate fifth nationally. The cousin of former New York Giants’ end Osi Umenyiora, has a sack in every game this year and is seventh in the nation with 1.7 tackles for loss per game.
Going After the Gophers’ Defense
On offense, Moore said the Terrapins would go back to basics at least three times in response to questions about how that unit would react this week. He did add the assertion meant tempo and even more speed. Maryland certainly won’t have it easy against a defense coming off a 14-7 loss to Iowa where the Gophers played well enough on that side of the ball to win.
“They have very good linebackers, very good linemen,” said Moore. “The front seven is very good, as you’d expect from the No. 4 rush defense (in the Big Ten). We’re not going to let their scheme interfere with our’s. We’re going to play our game.”
Minnesota is yielding just 134.2 yards per game on the ground, only 3.6 per carry (the fourth best mark behind only Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin). Gopher opponents have had more success through the air, passing for 232.6 yards per contest, a total ranked 13th in the Big Ten.
The Maryland passing offense has been fits and starts of late. Hills did have a 66-yard screen pass to Ty Johnson for a score at Penn State, a beautifully conceived play where Johnson made a one-hand grab and then did the heavy lifting behind timely downfield blocking – fast becoming a Terrapin trademark.
But Hills and Pigrome were also sacked a combined four times, bringing the three-game total to 13, a particularly acute problem with Hills’ health again in question. The 16 sacks on the season are tied for the most allowed in the Big Ten along with Northwestern.
Durkin said the pass protection problem was hard to explain because there’s not any one issue. One time it might be a breakdown, an individual up front beaten. Another time it’s a missed assignment where a rusher breaks free. Sometimes the quarterback is slow on his read. “Those are all things you work through in a season,” Durkin explained.
In a startling bit of analysis, he also added that the success the Terrapins have enjoyed running the ball (still second in the Big Ten at 274.0 yards per game) perhaps has stunted the passing game’s growth. “Now when you’re in situations where you need to throw it, obviously we’re not as far along in our development in that area of our game.”
Durkin said he has the right players out there and it was a progression through the season to improve. Interestingly, senior Maurice Shelton is again listed as the probable starter at right guard after being displaced by true freshman Terrance Davis last week.
Durkin also announced that senior running back Trey Edmunds has a fractured foot, suffered in practice yesterday, but actually more of a cumulative injury just found in an x-ray. “He’ll be out several weeks,” said the coach. “He’s going to have surgery to get that fixed. This really hurts me. There isn’t a finer young man. Trey has done everything he has been asked to do since he has been here. He (has) been a great leader and plays unselfish football. I really feel for him.”
Edmunds, the senior transfer from Virginia Tech and the son of all-time great Terrapin tight end Ferrell Edmunds, had gone over 1,000-yards rushing for his career just this season. He had 26 rushes for 158 yards, a 6.1-yard average, and a touchdown for the Terrapins so far, but his workload had dropped the last few weeks.
The Final Word
Durkin also announced that redshirt freshman DB/LB Isaiah Davis was suspended for this week’s game for his hit on the Penn State kicker to start the second half. Davis was flagged for the play and ejected by the officials. Durkin added Saturday that he would have sat Davis for the remainder of the game even had they not ejected him.
“Isaiah is a great young man and great member of this team,” said the coach Oct. 11. “He made a poor decision. We are a work in progress when it comes to figuring out what our team is about and what our culture is about. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to our guys about respecting the game we play and respecting our team. I can take aggressive penalties in a game. There are things that happen fast in a football game that are hard to avoid. This was different. There’s no room for that in the great game of college football that we all get to be a part of. This is a teachable moment that we’re going to use for our team.”
Davis plays on three of the four basic special teams units.
Durkin’s message was loud and clear. “He (said he) understands if there’s a penalty that cannot be avoided or is just an accident,” said Moore. “Penalties like that he doesn’t stand for, and he won’t condone them, and his actions make that pretty clear.”
Likely talked to Davis. “He understands the mistake he made, and nobody is beating him down or beating him up. He understands what he did and is just ready to get back on the field.”