The Maryland football team's loss last week to Bowling Green has thrust Caleb Rowe into an odd position.
Head coach Randy Edsall and offensive coordinator Mike Locksley have installed Rowe as Maryland's starting quarterback, in place of Perry Hills. Rowe was not to blame for last week's defeat, but now Maryland is 1-1, facing the lowest-ranked opponent left on its schedule ahead of a challenging slog through the Big Ten's East Division. If Maryland cannot beat the Bulls at Byrd Stadium this weekend, it will be in an apparently dire situation. The game will also mark the first time Rowe has ever started for Maryland without a quarterback (or two) ahead of him being injured. It is a big spot – except Rowe said it doesn't feel any different than the other three he's made, or any other Maryland games.
"I don't think it's any different. Every week I try to prepare like I am the starter, just like Coach Edsall and Coach Locks preach," Rowe said. "It's football. It's what we're here to do. We're here to play football, and I don't feel any more pressure than I would if I was the backup, knowing that, [if] something happens, I've got to go in."
Rowe has appeared off the bench in both Maryland games this year, the first in garbage time and the second in a last-ditch comeback effort. He is 1 of 4 with two interceptions, but that's not a representative sample. For his career, Rowe has thrown 12 touchdowns against 12 picks. He has completed 53.2 percent of his passes for 124.3 rating.
Edsall and Locksley have spoken this week about Maryland's desire to stretch the field – to have a vertical passing game – better than what it has shown so far. Last week, Hills was 4 of 9 on all throws longer than 10 yards. Maryland considers Rowe its best downfield passing option.
"That's why we made him the quarterback," Locksley said.
The hope for Maryland is that Rowe, by threatening in the deeper part of the field, will open up Maryland's running backs for more success near the line of scrimmage. Last season, C.J. Brown's inability to offer any semblance of a deep threat allowed teams up and down Maryland's schedule to load the defensive box with eight players. The Terps had one of the worst rushing offenses in the Big Ten, averaging just 3.7 yards per run as a team.
"The running game is an numbers game, and if you want to make it as simple as you can, if they outnumber you in the run, then that creates an unblocked guy," Locksley said.
Bowling Green went this route, dragging extra bodies close to the line without much fear of vertical retribution.
"We've got to run the football, but to help the run game the passing game has to become more efficient to get those guys out of the box," Locksley said. "Period."
Maryland lost a lot of playmaking this offseason. Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, the top two receivers, left for the NFL. The next three men on the depth chart – Marcus Leak, Jacquille Veii and Juwann Winfree – left with eligibility remaining. Those players represented about 75 percent of Maryland's catches and targets last year, but it's not as if Maryland doesn't have anything left in the tank. True freshman D.J. Moore, who caught a 42-yard touchdown last week, looks good. Brothers Levern and Taivon Jacobs (who start together this week for the first time) do, too. Amba Etta-Tawo has shown flashes. But someone needs to get them the football, and that's where Rowe comes in.
"We're just missing too many things," Locksley said. "As the quarterback coach, it's on me to make sure those guys are prepared to go out and get the ball to the guys we need to get it to on a consistent level. We haven't done it the last two weeks."
South Florida should not be a particularly tough opponent, but the Bulls aren't pushovers in pass defense. Their base defense is a 4-2-5, with a light defensive box and a base nickel package in the secondary. That means lot of defensive backs to cover Maryland's range of young receivers. It should mean less pass pressure on Rowe, so long as Maryland's offensive line can keep up its strong pass protection start. The Terps have not allowed a sack in two games.
"We're going to bring our best game," Doyle said. "We're going to make sure we can protect so Caleb can throw those long balls that we want him to throw."
Taivon Jacobs, like Rowe, spent much of last year rehabbing a torn ACL. The next connection they make will be their first in game action, but Jacobs said he has chemistry with his new quarterback. Mastering timing is their next frontier.
"Against Bowling Green, it was kind of iffy ... You didn't really get to see his full potential," Jacobs said. "People are going to be shocked when he comes in the game this coming week. He's going to shock a lot of people."