The Maryland football program's 123rd season is off to an unblemished start. The Terrapins weren't excellent, but they were good enough to beat FCS Richmond, 50-21, before an announced 38,117 at Byrd Stadium on Saturday.
Will Likely had 296 all-purpose return yards to set the Terrapins in excellent field position all afternoon, and Brandon Ross ran for a career-high 150 yards on 18 carries to start his senior season. Those two did the heavy lifting for Maryland's offense, which got an uneasy (at best) outing from quarterback Perry Hills. Maryland's once-again starter completed 12 of 21 passes for 138 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, but his 134.2 passer rating belied a series of under-throws and poor reads.
Maryland's defense recovered from a porous first half to handle Richmond's attack much better in the second. In the debut of Maryland's 4-3 base defense, that formation did what it should do against an FCS offense: It completely squashed the opposing running game. The Terps held Richmond to 56 yards on 27 carries, a 2.1-yard average.
The game started in a quintessentially Maryland way. Likely ripped off an opening kickoff return to his team's 46-yard line, and Maryland's offense stalled out in time for a Brad Craddock 34-yarder. That field position prowess benefited Maryland throughout the day. They didn't start a drive from behind their own 40 until 20 minutes had already been played and Maryland had scored 13 points from optimal starting position.
Good thing, because the Terps needed every yard they could get. Hills finished the first half 10 of 18 for 111 yards, two scores and interception, but that, in particular, doesn't tell the real story of his work. He either over- or undershot receivers on at least half his attempts, and his two touchdowns – one to Levern Jacobs, one to Malcolm Culmer – owed either completely or mostly to the receivers running away from people. Hills essentially handed the ball to Jacobs on a 23-yard "pass," with all the yardage coming after the catch. On the Culmer score, Hills only threw the ball 13 yards in the air, and Culmer took it the other 24 or so into the end zone.
While Maryland's offense labored, its defense outright leaked against an FCS offense. Richmond averaged a sort of outrageous 7.2 yards per play in the first half and took a 14-13 lead at one point, after A.J. Hendy and Likely were beaten on a 52-yard pass from Kyle Lauletta to Brian Brown. That set up a Lauletta four-yard keeper, which momentarily pulled the Spiders in front.
For the most part, Maryland recovered from there. The Terps got points on their next three trips: a Craddock field goal, the Culmer catch-and-run score and then a 21-yard waltz from Ross. Maryland still never turned the game into a blowout, and it kept squandering Likely-generated field position from punt returns. After he brought one punt 47 yards to the Richmond 16, Hills failed to spot an open Wes Brown in the flat for a touchdown before Craddock uncharacteristically shanked a chip shot.
The Terps achieved relative comfort but didn't exactly put away their second-division guests until a Brown touchdown made it a three-touchdown game with 13 minutes left to play. A Likely punt return score – more on him in a second – and Ty Johnson debut touchdown made the score appropriately lopsided.
Three things to know
1. Will Likely is better than everybody else. Richmond's special teams coordinator, at least until tomorrow, is Dave Legg. He deserves a tax write-off, because his decision to let Richmond punt the ball in bounds to Likely eight times was nothing less than an act of charity. It should be deductible. Likely had 233 punt return yards on eight tries, which is an average of 29 yards per return. Keeping that figure up over that many returns should be impossible. He sprinkled a touchdown in there and averaged 32 yards on a few kickoff returns, only for good measure. His punt-returning day set Maryland and the Big Ten's all-time single-game records, and the player was every bit as thrilling as his line. Maryland should play Likely at quarterback, running back or receiver – or maybe all three.
2. The Terps need to run this season. A lot. For some reason, they didn't last year. The Terps only ran on 53 percent of standard downs, compared to a 60 percent national average. This despite then-quarterback C.J. Brown being an awful thrower and good runner, and having veteran backs in Ross and Brown. Hills struggled a lot this Saturday, and Maryland didn't just force-feed him passing calls. The Terps ran 45 times and threw 22, and that made sense, especially against an undersized front.
3. Quinton Jefferson is important. Maryland defensive coordinator Keith Dudzinski spoke highly this week of Jefferson's versatility. Before he missed almost all of last season with an injury, Jefferson played defensive end in Brian Stewart's 3-4 defense. Now Maryland plays a 4-3, and Jefferson's playing defensive tackle. He's 6'3 and 289 pounds – an ordinary frame for a defensive end, but smallish for an interior tackle in the Big Ten. Richmond, obviously, isn't in the Big Ten, but Jefferson's Saturday was still highly encouraging. He sacked Lauletta twice and anchored a tackle rotation closed the middle of the field to Richmond's running backs.
Bonus: Brad Craddock is still a star. Maryland's Lou Groza-winning kicker missed an extra point and a 28-yard field goal. No idea what the deal was there. It's shocking, but it's not likely he'll do either of those again all season. Craddock hit seven touchbacks on nine kickoffs, a big improvement from his 38 percent touchback rate last year. He also made three field goals from the 30-plus-yard range that so often confounds college kickers, suggesting he didn't forget how to make kicks. This part of the game is a highly mental endeavor, and Craddock was clearly a bit shaky on the trigger Saturday. Don't bet on it happening again.