COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Perry Hills is a Thanksgiving plate-is-half-full-kind-of-guy.
As one of 22 seniors heading into their final home game at Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium Nov. 26 at noon against Rutgers, Hills is filled with the same bittersweet feelings that come to all in his situation. Only the 2016 season, Maryland (5-6, 2-6) and on the cusp of bowl eligibility, has been ever more of a mélange of magnificence and misfortune for the gritty quarterback, knocked out of four games and missing two others entirely.
“It has definitely been frustrating,” Hills said shaking his head. “Last year I took more hits and didn’t get injured, and even years in the past there was the freak injury my freshman year cutting back and I got blindsided. But the coaches have done so much for me and it’s really been just a blessing and honor to go out there and have fun with teammates.”
Saturday would be a lot more fun for Hills, the seniors and the entire Terrapin team if they can stop the four-game losing streak and nail down that elusive sixth win against Rutgers (2-9, 0-8) in the regular season home finale.
“That’s our main focus – a one-game season,” said senior left tackle Michael Dunn of a concept coach D.J. Durkin has preached all year. “If we win we keep playing. If we lose then our season’s over so we’re all definitely very motivated for this game.”
Rutgers, which has lost eight consecutive games, is also hoping to finish strong. The Scarlet Knights fell on their Senior Day last week, 39-0 to Penn State, the second straight game they’ve been shutout and one of four blankings laid on them this forgettable season.
There’s talk of this particular late-season game escalating to a rivalry – though not from Durkin – next year they’ll have a Nov. 4 “Big Ten Battle in the Bronx” at Yankee Stadium that includes an outdoor wrestling match between the two schools, as well. Both programs would like to see the game annually mean more in the Big Ten East standings, but this year it certainly means a lot to Maryland.
“It doesn’t matter who they are, they’re another team trying to come in here and take away our hopes and dreams,” said Hills. “You can’t take them lightly at all, no matter their record.”
Durkin was asked about the “rivalry” with Rutgers at the end of his weekly press conference Nov. 22 in Tyser Tower. “I can’t say that this is a rivalry and no else can say that either. Rivalries are built, they don’t happen that way. If this opponent or any other opponent becomes a big rivalry for us, then great, but that’s not going to be my choice or anyone else’s. It’s not until all the fans, the universities, the communities and everyone has a felling of animosity between the two teams. That’s how rivalries are built.”
There was a little animosity two years ago when one Ralph Friedgen served as the Rutgers’ offensive coordinator and the Knights overcame the largest deficit in school history (25 points) to rally for a 41-38 victory in the first Big Ten meeting of the two programs in College Park. The Terrapins returned the favor last year, coming from 21 points down to earn a 46-41 win in Piscataway, and such dramatic swings are often part of a rivalry.
Of course, so are big stakes and that’s a one-sided proposition this season in a game where on paper the key appears to never get ahead by more than three touchdowns.
Ain’t No Hills High Enough
In a continuing drama, Maryland’s veteran quarterback, Hills, was called “day to day” in the press conference by a smiling Durkin (because he gets the question every week), who went on to say a lot more about the senior signal-caller.
“That’s hard to put into words what Perry has meant to me, our staff, this program and the university,” he said. “You can’t really think of a better example of someone who has done a lot for their team. He has put everything he has into this program and team. He has certainly fought through a lot of things. He’s a tough-minded and physically tough guy. You wish he was healthier throughout the whole year. His year would be way more reflective of the type of player and young man he is. In many ways our team and our season would have that reflection, too.”
Never called a virtuoso passer by anyone, Hills’ hard work in the offseason to improve his passing has been apparent. Eleven games into the season, and here’s Hills atop the Big Ten passing efficiency leaders with his 150.1 rating – better than Wilton Speight, J.T. Barrett, Trace McSorley and Tommy Armstrong, among others – and the unquestioned leader of this Terrapin team, which hasn’t won a game he didn’t start.
Hills’ 66.7 percent completion percentage also leads the conference, and he has 10 touchdowns against just three interceptions, another early season key to Terrapin victories that has them still in position to make this season special.
Everyone in red, black and gold is hoping the week off Hills got not playing last week at Nebraska has been enough rest to heal up both injured shoulders and get him in the lineup for his last home game. But even Hills wasn’t effusively optimistic. “It has definitely given me a chance to heal up, but now I’m just going to go throughout the week and give Coach Durkin a chance to make the decision, whenever that time comes.”
Hills was watching last week when the Cornhuskers’ Armstrong didn’t suit up for his final home game. Maryland fell 28-7, but showed some progress after much bigger shellackings against Top 10 teams Michigan and Ohio State. Durkin turned to freshman Max Bortenschlager last week, and he might be the favorite to go again if Hills can’t. Bortenschlager was 14-of-29 for 191 yards and a touchdown in his first real work.
“We’re really pleased with how Max played last week,” said Durkin. “Obviously we were in a tough situation with a hostile environment and all of that in his first real game time other than some time early in the season when the game was no longer in doubt. I think he performed with some poise.
“There’s plenty of things I know he’ll tell you he could do better and we believe he can do better, too, but he was executing and played well. Max has certainly put himself in a position where if Perry’s not able to go, he’s a guy we feel can really function at a high level and move our offense. We can operate the run game as well as the pass game with him in. We need to have that element about us to be successful.”
Hills is counting on a happy Thanksgiving, his parents down from Pittsburgh to spend time in College Park. “I’m really going to enjoy it with them here, no matter the injuries,” he said.
A healthy Hills, tough as nails on the read-option runs and efficient in the passing game, was the best such dual-threat QB option, but he was knocked out early in the Ohio State game, a hit on his healthier left shoulder felling him.
“Honestly I went in the locker room and said god must not want me to be playing,” laughed Hills. “I’ve gone through one bad shoulder, and now I’ve got another. It was definitely heart-wrenching when that happened. Anything that can go wrong has gone wrong.”
And that’s the way it has gone for the entire team the last four weeks. The Terrapins have rushed for just 132 yards total the last three games, progressively worse and worse, culminating – they hope – in last week’s 11 yards on 25 carries at Nebraska.
Now after playing three of the top rush defenses in the country, Maryland gets to go up against Rutgers, yielding 259.3 yards per game by land, last in the Big Ten and 124th of 128 FBS teams. The onus is now on sophomore running back Ty Johnson to carry the load for an offense that has been over 230 yards rushing six times this season.
Terrapins Punching in Lighter Class This Week
Defensively, Maryland made some improvements last week in Nebraska, too, though certainly not enough to win. Then again, consider the competition. Rutgers, also three years into Big Ten membership knows a little something about the challenging landscape, too.
Under first-year coach Chris Ash, like Durkin, descended from the Urban Meyer tree, Rutgers hasn’t won since a Week Three, 37-28 home victory over New Mexico. That Rutgers streak has highlighted some of the same troubles Maryland has faced of late.
Counting last week’s loss to Penn State, the Knights have had the daylights beaten out of them by Penn State, Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State by a combined 224 points. Meanwhile, they’ve lost to Indiana, Iowa and Minnesota by a total of 15 points.
For Maryland, the Terrapins have been pounded to the tune of 149-13 the last three games against nationally-ranked Michigan, Ohio State and Nebraska. Durkin, isn’t selling the Scarlet Knights short, though.
“They’re a group that’s playing with good effort, it shows up on tape,” said Durkin. “They’ve a had a few game that have gotten away from them, but they’ve had some really close games. I know they’re well-coached. They’re playing hard and they give you problems. They have good schemes. We’re anticipating their best effort on Saturday and a tough ball game.”
Rutgers hasn’t had much to hang their hat on offensively of late. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Giovanni Rescigno has started the last four games, but he completed just seven passes for 48 yards last week in a game in which Rutgers played catch-up most of the day against the Nittany Lions.
Still look for the Knights to pick on the injured and young Maryland secondary. Sophomore corner J.C. Jackson is coming off one of his best games and senior Alvin Hill has made some big plays at the other corner. The Terps got three sacks at Nebraska, bringing their season total to 25, fourth best in the Big Ten. Buck End Jesse Aniebonam seems to have regained the groove he had early in the season to win his job.
“We showed some competitive edge last Saturday and we want to capitalize on that and emerge victorious,” said Hill.
The first step, said senior defensive lineman Roman Braglio, is to stop the Rutgers rushing attack, 12th in the Big Ten at 144.7 yards per game. Senior running back Justin Goodwin leads the team with 1,000 all-purpose yards this season and Robert Martin chips in a team-high 61.3 yards per game on the ground.
“We have to run to the ball,” said Braglio. “We have to shut down the run game. They have a similar offense to Ohio State. We’re going to use a similar game plan to attack them.”
The Terrapins are 108th nationally, allowing 224.4 yards per game on the ground. They’ve instituted a revolving door on the front four and are still looking for an effective combination. Braglio is the one player to start every game on the defensive line, but recently he has moved inside to play more tackle, where Cavon Walker is also getting more run lately.
When the Terps “held” Nebraska to 181 yards rushing last week, it was the first time Maryland held an opponent below 229 yards in the last seven games. The good news is that the Scarlet Knights have a similar scheme but are not Ohio State, and have a Big Ten-low six touchdowns rushing. Maryland has given up 19 rushing scores in the current four-game losing streak.
But Durkin has his team looking ahead, not back, though that’s still tough for the seniors this particular weekend.
“It’s crazy, time has flown by,” said Dunn. “I remember stuff that happened my true freshman year. It feels like it was yesterday. I remember looking at the seniors and thinking how old they were. I’ve really grown close with these guys the last five years. It’s hard not to think about it. It’s a bittersweet time, but I’m excited for the game.”