COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- The media surrounded Perry Hills at the weekly Tuesday Maryland football press conference in Tyser Tower inside Maryland Stadium. They actually contained the senior quarterback better than most Terrapin opponents this season.
Hills’ return to the lineup this past Saturday was a catalyst for Maryland knocking off Michigan State and moving to 5-2 overall, 2-2 in the Big Ten. So was the Terrapins just remembering how fun football can be. And right now, no one is having more fun that Perry Hills.
‘It has just been a lot of fun, the coaching staff, the players, just everyone around has made it a lot of fun,” said Hills, the top-rated passer in the Big Ten. “Especially this being my last year, I’m just taking everything in – the trips to the hotel, sitting around talking to the guys, it’s just having a good time, not having to worry too much.”
The Terrapins were a much-more worried bunch prior to last week. Two straight losses had derailed the Durkin Dynamo, and that’s when the coach went back to the drawing board to simply make sure his players were enjoying themselves.
“That was something we just made a emphasis about – getting back to having fun,” said coach D.J. Durkin. “Having enthusiasm for what we were doing, and they did that. From the guys on the sideline to the guys that were playing, all up and down the roster, there was great enthusiasm for what we have going on.”
And now Maryland must carry that momentum into another pivotal game this weekend at 3:30 at Memorial Stadium – the one in Bloomington, Ind., not the old one in Baltimore -- against Indiana, the beginning of a Big Ten Murderers’ Row that then includes Michigan State on the road, Ohio State at home and then Nebraska on the road again. There’s Rutgers back at home in the season finale, too, but no one is looking that far ahead right now.
Oh, and one more win will make Maryland bowl eligible, something that seemed pretty far-fetched after lopsided losses to Penn State and Minnesota.
“I think our players really responded to Perry being back and playing,” added Durkin. “You can see a noticeable spark in the team, the offense in particular. I thought Perry did a great job of leading the offense like he has done all year when he has been in there.”
Hills, who worked diligently in the offseason to go from a run-first, pass-second QB to a better all-around signal-caller, currently leads the Big Ten with a 151.8 rating, just ahead of J.T. Barrett’s 150.8 mark for Ohio State. Hills is completing a league-high 63.6 percent of his passes good for 822 yards, eight touchdowns and just two interceptions.
“He does a great job of keeping our tempo going, getting us in and out of calls, communicating the right way, getting the right run/pass options, executing on the field,” said Durkin. “I thought we executed at a high level (against MSU). We got back to running the ball really well. We were effective in the passing game and protecting the football for the most part other than that fumble there at the end of the half.”
On Tuesday, Hills was dressed in black, head to toe. He wore his Maryland hotel sweats and had a black Maryland cap pulled low over his eyes, but there’s not doubt he’s the hero for the Terps right now. Maryland is 5-0 in games he has taken the majority of snaps.
That 5-0 thing extends to another marvelous Maryland statistic this season – the Terrapins are undefeated when they rush for more than 200 yards. The Terps churned out 247 Saturday, dominated the fourth quarter, and beat Michigan State in a game not everyone saw coming after the previous two losses.
Hills’ return was a key. While his passing has been efficient if not spectacular, simply the threat he is providing changes everything for the Terrapins. And when it comes evaluating the gritty QB, it’s more about Hills’ heart than his arm.
“This whole year in general, Perry has been awesome, a great leader for us,” said guard Mike Minter. “He’s been a lot more calm, cool and collected this year. Just having him back out there was awesome. He’s a senior leader on our team and just getting to play with him again was awesome.”
It was also awesome that Minter & friends upfront kept Hills upright. Michigan State recorded just one sack, another winning factor for a Terps team that had allowed 19 in the six games prior.
Minter said it was more about preparation than anything else. The line watched more film and drilled harder on “pass pro” the week prior. Minter said protecting Hills more was “in the back” of their mind, but not an overall focus because they always take pride in winning those matchups.
The big redshirt sophomore guard did admit that he pays a little more attention to what happens when Hills breaks loose and runs. “Just based on the hits he has already taken this year, I’m like, ‘Perry, go down!’” he said. “’Don’t take any more hits. I like you.’”
Scouting the Hoosiers
Indiana started 2-1 this year, but has since lost four of five. Only the 38-17 defeat at Ohio State was a blowout, though. The Hoosiers always seem to have something up their sleeve offensively, but this year the big change is on defense where they’re allowing 131.9 yards less per game than a year ago. The current figure is 377.6 yards and the biggest improvement is in passing yards allowed.
Raise your hand if you have an idea what Maryland’s offensive game plan will include. IU should get a heavy dose of a lot of Terrapin running backs, which Durkin even hinted might again include Wes Brown, though it’s hard to take carries away from breakaway threats like Lorenzo Harrison and Ty Johnson. Kenneth Goins, Jr., has been stellar as the big back, too.
Durkin reiterated such decisions are based on “week-to-week productivity,” and added, “The depth of that position is a strength of ours. We’re not going to go away from that.”
Back to the Hoosiers, though, they’ve lost three consecutive games, including last week’s 24-14 setback at Northwestern. Earlier this season, Indiana beat two foes Maryland has also beaten – Florida International (34-13 IU win on the road) and Michigan State (24-21 overtime win at home).
Hoosier quarterback Richard Lagow enrolled at Indiana last spring after transferring from Cisco (Tx.) Community College, and moved in as starter this fall. He’s second in the Big Ten with 282.1 yards passing per game, and has 12 touchdown passes in Coach Kevin Wilson’s high-powered offense.
He has already set an Indiana single-game record with 496 passing yards against Wake Forest. Tailback Devine Redding is seventh in the Big Ten, averaging 84.3 yards per game on the ground.
The Hoosiers have a dangerous array of receivers in speedy Mitchell Paige (10.6 yards on 35 receptions), prolific Ricky Jones (31 catches and 77.0 yards per game) and versatile, 6-3 Nick Westbrook (80.4 yards per game on 30 grabs). Page is also a dangerous punt returner.
“We know we’ve got a big challenge coming up this week, being on the road,” said Durkin. “Indiana is a team that moves the ball effectively on just about everybody they play. They’ve really improved defensively. They’re playing hard. They’re a well-coached team.”
Kicker Griffin Oakes’ 10 field goals is the third highest total in the conference.
Defensively, junior linebacker Tegray Scales is third in the Big Ten with 9.6 tackles per game, just ahead of Maryland’s Shane Cockerille (9.1). Scales is third in the conference with 1.43 tackles for loss. Cornerback Rashard Fant has broken up more passes (14) than anyone else in the conference.
Hills looked comfortable against Michigan State, which has a conference-low seven sacks this season. The Hoosiers are the next worst pass-rushing defense in the loop with just 12 sacks so far.
Indiana is allowing 160.4 yards per game on the ground (eighth in the Big Ten), but they’ll stack the box and try to make it tough sledding up front, something Minter didn’t seem to mind.
He admired the “physical” way they were playing on defense. “You see them on film, they run to the ball. They’re physical. It’ll be a really fun game. I like playing physical.”
Depth Chart Report
Darnell Savage, Jr., who suffered a lower body injury Saturday, was still listed as the strong safety starter opposite Josh Woods on a depth chart released late Tuesday. Woods took over at free safety when Denzel Conyers was hurt. With Will Likely out at corner, the Terrapins didn’t list a slot cover corner this week. That’s because there are already four true freshmen among the regular four secondary positions.
There are so many youngsters for that unit, they probably use crayons in those position meetings. Look for Tino Ellis or redshirt freshman Ravon Davis to get more run. Elijah Daniels and Qwantrezz Knight, who had six tackles last week, are also likely to see more time.
“Indiana’s passing game presents a lot of issues,” said Durkin. “They understand what the defense is trying to do and they attack it. For whatever reason, we’ve been hit with some injuries in our secondary. It’s unfortunately part of our game. It’s just man down, man up. We have young guys who have received reps all season. They’ll be ready.”
And About that Bowl Eligibility
Durkin reacted to that question like he had swallowed dill pickle juice. One game at a time, heck, one practice at a time doesn’t jibe with an end of the season kind of question until it’s, well, the end of the season.
“It’s not something we’ve ever talked about,” Durkin said. “We’re just trying to be the best team we can be week-to-week. When you take care of things that way, you find yourself where you want to be at the end of the season. That’s the approach we’ve taken. Our focus this week is on improving as a team.”
But there is a little more immediacy to the question since a win at Indiana would be magical No. 6. Hills was a little more excitedly effusive than his coach, but that’s apparently the way Hills always rolls.
“It feels really good especially with getting an opportunity next week at Indiana to get that sixth win,” said Hills. “It just feels really good especially with being a senior and especially with what we went through last year. It has been a huge turnaround for us.”
“Our goal doesn’t end at six wins,” added Minter. “We want to win every one of them, keep moving forward and attack one game at a time.”