COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- There’s a big difference in the way football fans and then players and coaches look at a football schedule. By necessity, the best college programs legitimately take the games one at a time.
Good thing, too, because Maryland’s schedule has turned particularly daunting of late. Coming off last week’s 59-3 pasting in their Big House Call at No. 2 Michigan, the Terrapins now turn their attention to No. 6 Ohio State, coming to town Nov. 12 for a 3:30 p.m. tilt at Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium.
“There’s no really eye-opening thing like we just discovered (something),” said Terps coach D.J. Durkin. “We had a pretty good handle on who we are and what we are back in the spring. I don’t think the margin (against Michigan) is quite what that score shows, but there’s definitely a margin.”
Durkin went on to talk big picture – about a recruiting class that Scout.com has rated the 14th group in the country coming in next year, and about playing 15 freshmen this year. The ever-optimistic Durkin sees that as a plus. “They’re being forced to play and asked to perform, and they’re probably not quite ready,” he said. “That’s okay. They’ll get ready. They’ll be that much more ready as we move forward.”
Well, long story short, those freshman 15 and the entire team need to move forward in a hurry and turn the page with the big, bad Buckeyes (8-1, 5-1) coming to town. And there’s that storyline of a second straight week Durkin facing a mentor, Urban Meyer, who hired Durkin as a graduate assistant way back at Bowling Green in 2001.
“I talk to him pretty frequently,” said Durkin, who admitted calls were scarce during a season. “He’s a friend, and obviously a good guy to seek advice in the profession. He’s the first guy I ever worked for as a graduate assistant coach and worked for again at Florida. I’ve learned a ton from him.”
Playing his former boss, Jim Harbaugh, last weekend didn’t work out so well. Now it’s about facing an Ohio State team which got upset by Penn State three weeks ago, and is now playing to prove a point as the 2016 season and the championship playoff poll comes down the stretch. They laid a 62-3 whipping on No. 1 Nebraska Nov. 5, so there’s not a lot of time for the Terrapins (5-4, 2-4) to lick their wounds and feel sorry for themselves after the Michigan mauling.
“We look at every opponent the same, we go about preparing every week the same way,” said Maryland senior nose tackle Azubuike Ukandu. “It’s not really about the opponent. It’s about us and how we prepare for the game and execute, just stick to the game plan.”
Now that’s a positive Ukandu attitude, and it seems to permeate this program these days, aided and abetted by the young, enthusiastic coaching staff..
Still, Michigan blew up Maryland’s game plan early, jumping to a two touchdown lead in the first quarter. Offensively, even with quarterback Perry Hills knocked out of the game (again), the Terrapins moved the ball against the nation’s No. 1 rated defense.
“It’s definitely frustrating, but there’s a silver lining in the clouds,” said sophomore center Brendan Moore. “Michigan was one of the best defenses, if not the best defense in the country, and it’s good to move the ball on them, but we do need to finish drives in the end zone.”
Maryland’s 367 total yards were the second most the Wolverines had allowed all year. There’s another challenge this week in the Wolverines’ arch rivals, and the good news is early indications are that Hills will be back at quarterback.
“If Perry’s healthy, he’s our quarterback,” said Durkin, putting the kibosh on talk of playing younger QBs for the future. “If he’s capable and ready, (Hills) will be the guy.”
Durkin said Hills, who has been knocked out of two other games, and missed the entire Minnesota contest, is “day to day” with the same shoulder that has given him trouble since the UCF game in Week 3. “Perry is fighting through and doing a good job,” said Durkin. “He took another hit on it in the game. We just determine it day to day. That’s the real answer. We’ll see how he feels [Nov. 8], that’s when our real work-week starts. He has been good at fighting through it in practice and I think he has been very effective in games.”
In fact, Hills – not known as a virtuoso passer – has ranked among the leaders in passing efficiency in the Big Ten the last few weeks, currently second behind Michigan’s Wilton Speight, and just ahead of Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett. Hills has a 152.8 passer rating on 97-of-144-passing for 10 touchdowns and three interceptions, 1,143 yards and a Big Ten best 67.4 completion percentage.
Another Tough Foe: Just Grin and Barrett
And speaking of Barrett, the 6-2, 222-pound Heisman candidate junior is second in the league with 2,535 total yards running and passing, an average of 281.7 per game or just a couple of yards less than an entire opponent team averages against the Ohio State defense (285.4).
Barrett has 21 touchdowns, just four interceptions and is hitting 67.4 percent of his passes good for 218.3 yards passing per game. But he’s not just a threat with that arm. He also has 570 yards and six touchdowns rushing.
“He can run really well, he’s almost like a running back back there,” said Ukandu. “They have designed running plays for him and he can also deliver the ball downfield (passing). He’s the ideal dual threat quarterback.”
And as you might imagine, he has some weapons along side. Freshman tailback Mike Weber anchors the Big Ten’s top rushing attack with his 93.6 yards per game and 6.0 average per carry, but he’ll be playing with a sprained shoulder. The Buckeyes pound out 268.6 yards per game on the ground, the ninth most per game in the country. (Maryland is third in the conference and 23rd nationally at 232.7 rushing yards per game.).
Ace receiver Curtis Samuels is another concern. The hybrid RB/WR is second in the conference with 52 receptions for five touchdowns and 75.1 yards per game. Keep an eye on where No. 4 lines up and what he’s up to, the Maryland defense sure will be.
“He’s as good as there is out there,” said Durkin. “He lines up at receiver, running back and then motions to either one as well. They do a good job of finding ways to get him the ball and he’s dangerous in the open field.”
The talk around Columbus this week is that the Ohio State offensive line was coming into its own after allowing just one sack and only six negative plays the last two games against Northwestern and Nebraska. On paper it sure looks like that unit will be the biggest test so far for a Maryland defense that has been getting pushed around lately.
The Terrapins allowed more than 229 yards rushing for the fifth consecutive game at Michigan, the Wolverines churning out 273. That’s on the heels of Indiana literally running over Maryland with 414 rushing yards. The last two games, the Terrapins have seen opponents rush for 11 touchdowns.
“We’ve got to get better,” said Ukandu. “(Our effort) wasn’t good enough to beat teams like that. We’ve got to go back and correct the things that went wrong. On defense, we’ve got to stop the run, get off the field on third down, and stop giving up so much yardage. Make stops and create turnovers for the offense so they can get things going, too.”
The offense is on somewhat of an uptick even after getting held to a season-low three points. They had chances in the red zone, and made big plays against Michigan, senior Caleb Rowe coming off the bench to hit on 12-of-23 passes for 203 yards. Rowe’s issue was the same old bugaboo – two interceptions. He just missed out on a big touchdown pass just before the half when D.J. Moore was tackled on a 47-yard play just inside the 2-yard line as time expired in the second quarter.
Moore had two grabs for 66 yards, just missed out on a couple of other big plays, and is starting to look like a Torrey Smith-type big play waiting to happen when he gets his mitts on the pigskin.
Senior wide receiver Levern Jacobs, who has come on strong lately (27 catches in his last four games), thinks he and the other receivers have an edge against defenders in offensive coordinator Walt Bell’s system. “Coaches do a great job of putting us in position to make plays,” he said. “We just have to be able to beat the man-to-man (coverage) because so many of the Big Ten teams play press-man. It’s pretty much a one-on-one battle and I’ve been working hard to beat my man.”
Attacking Ohio State
As for Ohio State’s defense, yeah they’ll go press-man because they always have great players to try to win more than their share of one-on-one match-ups all over the field. Durkin said the biggest issue with Ohio State is their team speed, again, all over the field.
“Defensively, and probably as a team, their speed is elite,” he said. “They fly around and get to the ball. They’re fundamentally sound and fast, so they can make up for mistakes or a misfit that happens because of the speed they have.”
Maybe a notch below Michigan’s No. 1 ranked defense, the Buckeyes are allowing just 13.8 points per game, the third fewest nationally, and their defense is ranked fifth overall, yielding just 285.3 yards per contest. They’re particularly stingy through the air, allowing only 166.1 passing yards per game.
“I think we’ve improved,” said Jacobs of Maryland’s aerial attack. “I think recently playing these type of teams, we’ve had to be more balanced.”
Jacobs said whether Hills plays or not, the Terrapins are up to the challenge. “It’s college football and injuries happen. You never know who’s going to be hurt, and you have to be prepared for whoever is in there. I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job of that so far.”
The Terrapins also sounded like they might have Ty Johnson, their leading rusher so far this season, back from his upper body injury. Johnson is averaging 9.2 yards per carry, leads the team with 635 total yards and a 70.6 average per game. He has also had three scores of 48-yards or more in the last five games, and even last week when he didn’t get in the end zone, he had a 35-yard reception.
Senior left tackle Michael Dunn, who is believed to have an arm injury, may still be a question mark. Durkin said sitting him (and his offense-high 45 career starts) last week was a game-time decision, but his status is still uncertain for this week. Durkin was pleased with sophomore Derwin Gray’s work in relief of Dunn last week, but the Terrapins are better with the versatile senior in the mix.
The Buckeyes, who have beaten the Terrapins the last two years in the first two meetings ever between the programs, also boast strong special teams units.
Punter Cameron Johnston is fifth in the nation averaging 47.5 yards per boot. Kicker Tyler Durbin is one of the Big Ten’s best kickers, too, hitting 13 of 14 field goals this year and leading the conference with 89 points on placements.
Some of the veteran Terrapins are buoyed by memories of last year’s meeting in Columbus when Maryland hung around with the Buckeyes into the third quarter. It was tied 21-21 early in the third quarter when Hills ran four yards for a touchdown. Hills would finish with a Maryland QB record 170 yards rushing, but Barrett and Ezekiel Elliott helped OSU pull away late for a 49-28 victory in coach Randy Edsall’s final game at Maryland. Barrett had two second-half rushing scores and Elliott rushed for 106 yards and two more scores.
“We’ll close that gap (with highly-ranked teams),” said Durkin. “We’ve got a group of guys that know how to win. We’ve proven that. We haven’t done it on a consistent basis, but we know how to win. When we’re playing on a consistent basis and doing the right thing, I think we’re a tough matchup for anyone.”