There was a moment when the calendar turned to October when I thought Maryland might be playing at Penn State to prove it was the third-best team in the East. The Terps were off to a 4-0 start with a decent win over Central Florida and a rout of Purdue. I even thought it was something close to a must-win game for Penn State. With the Nittany Lions at 2-2, folks weren’t real happy with James Franklin at that juncture and it felt like some sort of recruiting upper hand for the Eastern edge of the Big Ten was at stake.
Penn State won easily, 38-14, and has kept winning. Maryland, meanwhile, has won one game since that Oct. 8 meeting and lost its last two to Michigan and Ohio State by a combined score of 121-6.
Given some injuries and suspensions, Maryland this week looks even less like that team that started 4-0, but there’s still plenty of talent on the roster and, even as the Terps sort of limp home in 2016, I’m still comfortable calling D.J. Durkin’s first season a mild success.
THE LINE: Nebraska opened as a 14.5-point favorite and it has dropped a half point since then. If you wanted to back the Huskers here while not knowing who will start at quarterback either way, the line might be offering a little value. According to the Prediction Tracker average, Nebraska is being projected to win by 15.22 points.
THE RANKINGS: It was a mild surprise to me to see the Terps hanging out in mid-70s/low-80s — even a 96 in one spot — in the five rankings we’ve been watching this season. Guess that’s what 59-3 and 62-3 in back-to-back weeks will get you. Nebraska has some variance too, ranking anywhere from 22nd to 55th. That’s still a big enough gap between the two teams for some hefty win probabilities for the Huskers. FEI gives Nebraska the highest win probability at 89.5 percent and the chances of a dominant win (28.6 percent), strong win (26.6) and moderate win (21.7) are all fairly similar. FPI and S&P+ have Nebraska at 84.5 and 83 percent to win respectively.
Here are six stats we’ll be keeping an eye on this Saturday:
1. Win if by Land
In case you hadn’t noticed, Maryland ranks fourth in the Big Ten in rushing yards per play and that’s despite averaging 1.55 yards per carry over its last two games. At it’s best, this is a strong rushing team. The Terps rank 11th nationally in Football Study Hall’s Rushing S&P+, the offensive line ranks 13th nationally in adjusted line yards and, perhaps the defining trait here, this is also an explosive rushing offense as Maryland ranks 11th nationally with 26 runs of 20-plus yards in 2016.
The problem, however, is that Maryland’s run game probably isn’t at full strength. Freshman running back and second-leading rusher Lorenzo Harrison was suspended indefinitely prior to last week’s Ohio State game and there’s no indication yet that he’ll be back this Saturday. Ty Johnson, Maryland’s leading rusher, is plenty explosive, 8.52 yards per carry, but he’s not really an every-down back, averaging just 7.7 carries per game. Depending upon the availability of starter Perry Hills, that could mean a healthy dose of true freshman quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome. He’s not much of a passer at this early stage in his career, but he is the team’s third-leading rusher.
Nebraska’s rush defense isn’t what it was a year ago, but the Huskers are coming off perhaps their best game defending the run and to allow a wounded Maryland ground attack to have success on Saturday is probably the surest way for Nebraska to get into trouble. Johnson presents a formidable challenge, but Nebraska needs to win some battles against him and keep the rest of the rushing attack in check.
Stat to Watch: Maryland’s yards per carry (Number to hit: 3.4)
2. Stick to the Script
Durkin is an ex-defensive coordinator and it seems likely that he will have Maryland defending at a high level eventually, but this team isn’t there yet. The Terps have been good at limiting big plays, but have struggled mightily at keeping teams off schedule with a defensive success rate of 47.8 percent, which ranks 119th nationally.
Nebraska’s offensive success rate (currently 43.2 percent, 52nd nationally) has nose dived since the first month of the season, but this is still an offense that is more efficient than explosive, meaning this is a match up that should suit offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf. Maryland struggles somewhat with the short-to-medium passing game, which is how Nebraska is happiest. That will be particularly true if Ryker Fyfe ends up playing significant (or perhaps all) snaps.
But the real weakness here is against the run. There should be ample opportunity for Terrell Newby to have a big final game at Memorial Stadium, with some decent doses of Devine Ozigbo, Mikale Wilbon and Tre Bryant.
Stat to Watch: Nebraska’s success rate (Number to Hit: 46 percent)
3. Protect the Passer
Maryland always seems to have long and athletic defensive linemen aplenty, and the Terps continue to be a solid pass-rushing team. Maryland ranks fourth in the Big Ten with 23 sacks over 10 games, one spot behind Minnesota, and ninth nationally in passing downs success rate according to Football Study Hall. That makes point No. 2 above — staying on schedule — particularly important because the Terps have shown the ability to be pretty disruptive on the (admittedly rare) downs where the defense has the edge.
This is another category that will take on more or less importance depending upon who is taking snaps for the Huskers. Nebraska has had one of the nation’s best sack rates all season long but Tommy Armstrong Jr. has to get a lot of credit for that on his own. Fyfe isn’t quite as capable at eluding the rush.
Nebraska only gave up one sack — it was Fyfe’s third snap — last week to a good Minnesota pass rush. A similar result would leave the Huskers in good shape this Saturday.
Stat to Watch: Maryland’s sacks (Number to Hit: 1.0)
3 More to Monitor
The Second and Fourth Quarters: Teams sort of have their own steady heartbeats at this late stage in the season. Maryland’s heartbeat defensively has been a decent start, followed by diminishing returns in both halves. Call it the good-game-plan effect. The Terps are capable of some nice wrinkles, but as teams adjust Maryland isn’t yet ready to fully adjust with them. Nebraska’s offensive heartbeat should hit some peaks in the Terps’ valleys. The Husker offense’s best quarters are the fourth and second.
Third Down: For all of its struggles elsewhere, Maryland has at least been decent at getting off the field on third down with a conversion percentage of 38.41, which is just a bit above the national average. Depending upon the distance, this can play into the Terrapins’ pass rushing strength. The less exotic Nebraska has to get on first and second downs, the better. Teams have been pretty vanilla against Maryland this season. If the Huskers can’t be, it’s a potential sign of trouble.
Interceptions: Nebraska has had at least one in seven of 10 games this season and ranks fifth nationally with 16 on the season. This has been a decent barometer of Maryland’s level of play this season. In five wins, the Terps have thrown just one interception against seven in five losses. It’s a hard category to totally handicap not knowing who Maryland will play at quarterback. If it’s Caleb Rowe (zero touchdowns, three interceptions), the Husker secondary could have a big day. If it’s Pigrome, prepare for a good dose of QB run and a very controlled passing game. Should Hills be available, well, then Nebraska’s back seven will get the best challenge possible in this game.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.