When Maryland walks into Ohio Stadium for a noon kickoff against No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus this Saturday (Big Ten Network or BTN2Go), the Terps will be lugging with them a two-game blowout streak and four-touchdown underdog label. That's because the Buckeyes are one of the country's best teams while Maryland, most generously put, is not.
You'll read a lot this week, both here and elsewhere, about Maryland's disadvantages. That's how it should be, because writing should always be faithful to its subject matter. And this has every appearance of highly lopsided subject matter.
But this is a different kind of post. This is how Maryland wins on Saturday, in a game it has no real business winning. Many of the items laid out below are unlikely to happen in their own right, let alone in concert. But if they're appropriately sequenced, Maryland can win. Honest.
1. Cardale Jones falters.
Jones is a blue-chip quarterback, but he hasn't always played like it this season. Ohio State's offense has looked mediocre in three games out of five, and Jones hasn't approached the highs he reached during his Cinderella romp through the College Football Playoff last winter. Against Northern Illinois, Jones went 4 of 9 and threw two interceptions before being benched for J.T. Barrett. Speaking of whom:
2. J.T. Barrett falters, too.
When Barrett – probably best "backup" in college football history – relieved Jones against NIU, he had one of the quietest games of his career. He went 11 of 19 for 97 yards, a score and a pick. Ohio State still won, which demonstrates the Herculean nature of Maryland's task at hand. But the Huskies were in position to win that day – with three chances to mount game-tying drives in the fourth quarter – because Barrett couldn't put the Ohio State offense over the top.
3. Ezekiel Elliott doesn't totally go off.
Elliott is one of the country's best running backs, a legitimate Heisman threat in any universe that doesn't include LSU's Leonard Fournette. He was Ohio State's biggest star in last year's title run, and he's a talent worthy of all the plaudits he gets. Elliott is not usually not contained, but sometimes, he is. NIU and Hawaii each held Elliott to less than 5 yards per carry, and the Buckeyes only scored 26 points per game across those two outings. (Their average is 34.) Elliott can also erupt, as he did when he ran for 275 yards last weekend at Indiana. If that happens, forget about it.
Land-Grant Holy Land
4. Caleb Rowe starts – and doesn't turn the ball over.
That's a pretty tall order. First, it isn't even clear if Rowe will start on Saturday, but there's no real path forward if he doesn't. Perry Hills and Daxx Garman don't throw interceptions nearly as much as FBS leader Rowe, but neither brings the downfield passing game Maryland will need. If Maryland wants to let Ohio State's elite linebacking group and safeties Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell creep toward the line of scrimmage and then try to win a trench war, fine. Maryland will average fewer than 2 yards per rush and score no more than six points, again. If Rowe throws five interceptions, the margin of defeat will be worse, but at least Maryland will have given itself the chance to have a chance.
5. Damian Prince and Michael Dunn have the games of their lives.
In the form of terrifying end Joey Bosa, Ohio State has the country's best defensive player. He'll probably line up against right tackle Prince, while Buckeye sacks leader Tyquan Lewis will probably line up across from left tackle Dunn (though Bosa's placement is flexible). If Dunn and Prince can't reasonably seal the edges, Rowe not only won't play well but will be in immense physical danger. Bosa and Lewis are menacing, and Maryland has no hope if those two players can take what they want.
6. Will Likely flips field position, then does it again.
Even if all of this happens, Maryland won't out-gain Ohio State in total offense. There's too much of a talent disparity here for the Terrapins to consistently outplay the Buckeyes across 130 or 140 snaps. But Maryland could beat Ohio State on special teams, and that starts with Likely returning a few kicks and punts deep in the direction of Ohio State's end zone. The Terps (i.e., Likely) are averaging a Big Ten-best 24 yards per punt return, while the Buckeyes' team average is 12.8 yards. Those 11-yard differences, if allowed to persist, could make a difference.
7. Brad Craddock doesn't miss.
Craddock is college football's greatest kicker, and it's a crime against football that Maryland's inept offense has only let him attempt six field goals in five games. If Maryland beats Ohio State, the margin will be one, two or maybe three points. The Terps will keep things close, and they'll somehow settle around the Buckeyes' 40-yard line with a few seconds left on the clock. That'll leave Maryland's fate in Craddock's hands.
If the game ever gets to that point, bank on it: Maryland wins.