COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- There’s a knock on The Big House door.
At least that’s what Maryland coach DJ Durkin is telling his Terrapins this week as they head into the first of three straight games against nationally ranked opponents. And undefeated Michigan (8-0, 5-0) is about as ranked as you can be, sitting at No. 2, and looking a lot like a national playoff finalist as Maryland comes to town Nov. 5 for a 3:30 showdown.
“When we came in for the team meeting (Sunday), Coach Durkin just said that we have a great opportunity in front of us,” said senior defensive end Roman Braglio, at the Terrapins’ Tuesday press conference. “We’re playing the No. 2 team in the nation. There’s not one person in the world that thinks we’re going to win. So we come out, play hard, and think about it, Maryland football comes out and beats the No. 2 team in the country, thinking about it just gives me chills.”
Junior tight end Derrick Hayward is buying in, too. “We believe as a team that it’s a huge chance to go against the No.2 team in the nation because most teams don’t have this opportunity to show what they can do against a Top 10 team.”
There’s another opportunity at work this week, too, that plays to Maryland’s favor on the Terrapin practice fields – the chance to get rid of the lingering disappointment from last Saturday’s 42-36 setback at Indiana, a game a lot of Terps are convinced they could have and should have won.
“We moved the ball and put up points against Indiana, and we just missed a couple of big shot plays,” said Hayward. “Two or three passes and if we would have had those completed, and we would have come out on top.”
“That was a tough loss, we definitely should have won that game in my opinion,” added Braglio, admitting he still had trouble even talking about it.
But Maryland (5-3, 2-3) didn’t win in Bloomington. In fact, the Terrapins got smashed on defense, yielding a whopping 650 yards in total offense and 414 yards just on the ground. It was the most rushing yardage against Maryland since Virginia racked up 445 in a 1999 game.
“Looking at the film, (Indiana) just caught us,” said Braglio. “It was not our best game to say the least.”
Durkin and Braglio both talked about individual defenders filling their roles better, executing the defensive scheme with more precision. That’s a must against a Michigan offense that is averaging 46.4 points per game and has scored 41 or more points in six contests so far.
“(Michigan) is one of the best teams in the country both personnel-wise and they’re extremely well-coached,” said Durkin, who would know since he was one of their coaches last season. “We know we have a big task ahead of us and we’ve embraced that and are preparing to go play a great game this Saturday.”
For Durkin, and the Terrapins who talked Tuesday, that sort of impetus all begins in practice this week. “If we prepare the right way, focus on having a good week of practice, everything will work out fine,” said senior wide receiver Teldrick Morgan, who is tied for the team lead with 28 receptions.
Durkin said just getting back on the field for practice Monday was “the best thing for players and coaches.” He likes the resiliency of his first Terrapin team, too. “Right now you see us and we have all the signs of a team that I think has a bunch of promise,” he said. “But we’re a young team and don’t always play that way. We’re inconsistent, both individually and as a team. There are a lot of ups and down. That’s my job as a coach to get that corrected.”
Durkin didn’t have much to say about his personal return to Ann Arbor, where he served as defensive coordinator for Jim Harbaugh last year. “I really enjoyed my time there so being there will be nice, my family really enjoyed it, but we’re there to play a football game.”
“We definitely want to go out there and get this one for him,” said Hayward, optimistic about Terrapins prospects. “I think it’s important to not fall into the hype and go in trying to do things differently. We have to go in and stick to our game plan, just keep trying to move the ball the way we have all season.”
Durkin was more concerned about “the ramifications” of a Big Ten East Division clash, and the fact that his Terrapins haven’t won a conference road game yet. Bigger picture, which Durkin doesn’t dwell on, is that the Terrapins are still one victory shy of the magical six-win level, and the accompanying bowl eligibility.
While all the focus is justifiably on the Wolverines this week, the Terrapins return home next weekend to host No. 6 Ohio State, and then it’s on to No. 9 Nebraska the following week. Welcome to the Big Ten.
The regular season finale is Nov. 26 against Rutgers, perhaps the only game remaining in which the Terrapins could be a favorite going in.
Hail The Conquering Heroes
Besides Durkin coaching Michigan’s defense last year, there are several other Terrapin ties with the Wolverines. Former blitz-happy Terps defensive coordinator Don Brown replaced Durkin as Michigan’s defensive leader. Maryland linebackers coach Matt Barnes was Durkin’s defensive analyst last season in Ann Arbor.
Among the players, two Maryland natives grace the Wolverine roster, senior fullback Henry Poggi and freshman Stephen Spanellis are both from The Gilman School in Baltimore. That school also produced Maryland fullback Kenneth Goins, Jr., linebacker Shane Cockerille, and defensive end Melvin Keihn.
Braglio said he met a linebacker off last year’s Michigan team, the since-graduated Joe Bolden, and asked him about Durkin before the Terps had a chance to know their new coach. “(Bolden) said he was crazy and had a lot of energy,” recalled Braglio. “He also said the was a great coach. He was right. He is crazy in a good way. Definitely full of energy, and definitely a good coach.”
Durkin said he and Harbaugh were friends, and that Durkin’s time on staff with Harbaugh at Stanford was what drew him to join Harbaugh at Michigan. Andy Buh was also on that Stanford staff, as was Michigan offensive coordinator Tim Drevno.
And while Michigan leads the all-time series with the Terrapins, 4-1, the Terrapins won the last time they played in Michigan Stadium, the famed, 90-year-old, 107,601-seat “Big House.” That game was the first Big Ten meeting of the two programs in 2014, a 23-16 victory engineered by running quarterback C.J. Brown and running back Wes Brown, who scored the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Last year, Durkin’s maize and blue defense shut out the Terrapins in College Park, in a 28-0 Michigan victory. Before those two games, the last meeting had been in 1990.
“It’s going to be loud,” said Morgan. “We have to emphasize paying attention to (QB)Perry (Hills). But we’ve been in that sort of environment before. We didn’t have any problems at Penn State with the noise.”
The Terrapins aren’t bothered by noise thanks to the signals they use in coordinator Walt Bell’s hurry-up offense. Maryland will try to run the ball at Michigan, something they’ve had great success with this year, particularly with Hills at QB, and bringing the threat of passing the ball should opponents crowd the line.
Maryland’s rushing attack has totaled 21 touchdowns this season, and one more would be the most in a single season for the Terrapins since 2007. Seven different Terrapins have rushed for a touchdown this year, and Maryland already has its most rushing yardage (2, 016) in a season since rolling up 2,487 yards in 2003.
Sophomore Ty Johnson has back-to-back 100-yard games and is averaging an amazing 10.4 yards per carry this season. He has three scores of 48-or-more yards in the last five games.
Coming to Pass
Here’s something not many fans of either Maryland or Michigan expected headed into November. This match-up boasts the Big Ten’s top two pass efficiency leaders. Hills is No. 1 with a 149.9 rating by virtue of his 93-of-140, 66.4 percent completion, 10 touchdown and three interception passing.
Michigan’s Wilton Speight is next, having completed 130-of-207, 63.8 percent and 13 touchdowns and three interceptions, good for a 149.2 mark. The big edge goes to Speight in passing yardage, 1691 to 1070. In fact, Maryland is ranked 11th in the Big Ten, averaging just 171.8 passing yards per game.
Part of that low number is Maryland’s success on the ground, something Hayward expects to translate over to the passing attack. “By doing well in the run game at the beginning of the season, it’s starting to open up our pass game,” he said. “Now people have to respect the outside run, the inside run and now they’re having to bring more people into the box, and this is giving us the one-on-ones on the outside with D.J. (Moore) and others.”
Moore had his biggest game in seven weeks with five catches for 81 yards at Indiana, and it could have been even bigger. Two other times he was open behind the Hoosiers defense and Hills couldn’t get him the ball. The Wolverines, who are No. 1 in the nation against the pass (120.1 yards allowed), probably noted those plays, as well, along with Moore’s spectacular 23-yard catch and tippy-toe touchdown.
Michigan also leads the nation in total defense (231.3 yards allowed), scoring (11.6), third down defense (15.5 percent conversions), red zone defense (58.3 percent allowed), and leads the Big Ten in three other categories, including 3.38 sacks per game.
That last statistic is particularly troubling for a Terrapin offensive line that has allowed a Big Ten high 24 sacks. Of even more concern is the availability of senior left tackle Michael Dunn, who went down with an arm injury late in the Indiana game. Durkin listed him as “day to day” Monday, and anyone that knows the gritty former walk-on knows that if at all possible, he will be in the starting lineup Saturday, as he has been an offense-leading 45 times over his career.
As for Speight, while that offensive line and robust rotation of running backs get most of the credit for Michigan being the nation’s highest scoring team, the 6-6 junior quarterback is coming on as a difference-maker, particularly with his ability to make plays downfield. He has thrown for over 200 yards in five games this season, including 312 and four touchdowns in a 51-14 win over Central Florida.
Braglio said the best part of Michigan’s offense is the Wolverines’ execution. “A lot of it is smoke and mirrors – motion this way, formation that way, unbalanced formations and things like that,” he said. “So we’re all sitting down and watching film and studying and learning their tendencies.”
Braglio said the defense fell victim to the same kind of “panic” that has hurt the unit on other occasions like in the tough two-overtime win at Central Florida and the losses at Penn State and to Minnesota. When a player breaks down or tries to do too much, the whole scheme suffers.
“We’ve got to get that corrected,” Braglio said. “Just sit down and really focus and make sure that everyone knows exactly what they’re doing in the game plan. And if we come out focused, really locked in on what we’re supposed to do, we really are a tough defense to try to run through. Hopefully we’ll come out Saturday and be that team.”