In its season opener against Richmond on Saturday, the Maryland football team recovered nicely from an altogether ugly first half. The Terrapins led by just two points against an FCS squad through 29 minutes, but a Malcolm Culmer catch-and-run touchdown was a sort of line of demarcation from that mediocrity. They out-gained Richmond four to one (120 to 32) in the third quarter and outscored the Spiders 28-7 for the half, turning an iffy showing into the blowout it was supposed to be.
If Maryland starts slowly this Saturday, against visiting Bowling Green, don't expect such an easy rebound. The Falcons are a lot more potent than the Spiders, and the Terps could easily – yet, sort of inexplicably – lose if they don't play a complete game. More on that in a moment.
Here's a look back and a look ahead. Since it's been covered ad nauseam, we'll leave Will Likely's excellence to Pete.
Maryland vs. Richmond – what we saw
1. Maryland's running game cleaned up. The Terps were a bad running team in 2014, no two ways about it. They didn't run often – less frequently than the national average on standard and passing downs – and were generally ineffective when they did. Quarterback C.J. Brown was the most efficient runner on the team by a wide margin, and Brandon Ross was generally decent but became a huge problem because of fumbling. On Saturday, the Terps faced a small, unskilled defensive front, but let's not diminish too much what they did. The Terps ran the hell out of the ball, to the tune of 7.6 yards per carry (sixth best of any FBS team last weekend) and three ground scores. Ross, Wes Brown and Ty Johnson were all good, which points to a workmanlike effort by Maryland's offensive line.
2. The offensive line performed, too. This is what's supposed to happen against Richmond, but again, credit to Maryland's big men up front for actually doing it. According to our game chart, Maryland quarterbacks were only pressured twice all afternoon, and Richmond didn't have a sack. Those numbers, like the haughty yards-per-carry figures, speak well of Michael Dunn, Mike Minter, Evan Mulrooney, Andrew Zeller and Ryan Doyle. So does this: Maryland's running success rate (good primer here, but a the percentage of "successful" running plays) was 51.2 percent, where the national average hovers around 40 percent for all plays. That's pretty good stuff.
3. Maryland's edge on the edge. With Maryland's shift to a 4-3 base defense, junior Yannick Ngakoue and sophomore Jesse Aniebonam are full-time defensive ends. For pass pressure's sake, this is a good thing. Ngakoue is an every-down defender at this stage of his career, while Aniebonam's still behind Roman Braglio on Maryland's depth chart. Only Aniebonam is a superb pass-rusher, so Maryland started at the end of last season to regularly insert him at defensive end in nickel and dime packages for obvious passing downs. He stood out in particular in last season's Michigan win, and he joined Ngakoue to wreak havoc Saturday. Aniebonam abused left tackle Nick Ritcher all day. He had four quarterback pressures while playing mostly on those passing downs, while Ngakoue had seven. Richmond had two altogether. Randy Edsall has called the Big Ten "a lineman league," and Maryland might have two of its best.
Maryland vs. Bowling Green – what we're looking for
1. A handful. Bowling Green, of the MAC, won eight games and played in a bowl last year despite being, normally speaking, not that good. But expect head coach Dino Babers's team to challenge Maryland more than Richmond or South Florida, the team's opponent following this week. The Falcons have a legitimately potent offense that rang up 30 points on the road last week against Tennessee, a top-25 team with a very good, very well-rounded defense. The Falcons still lost by 29 points because they gave up 59, but let's assume Maryland won't get quite that high offensively. If the Terps can't defend better than Tennessee did last week, they could lose. It's a long way from impossible.
2. An endurance test on defense. Bowling Green plays fast. In fact, the Falcons were in the 98th percentile in adjusted pace last season, and they started 2015 by running 85 plays (for 557 yards!) against the Vols. BGSU's high adjusted pace means, in practice, that it runs a lot more plays than would normally be expected for a team that only runs the ball slightly more than half the time. (Remember, dropped passes stop the clock, and runs normally don't.) The team's breakneck pace was illustrated well in the opener: Quarterback Matt Johnson threw 22 incompletions, while Tennessee's Joshua Dobbs threw seven. Bowling Green still only lost the 60-minute time-of-possession battle by 34-to-26. And Bowling Green ran 85 plays in 26 minutes. That's a play every 20 seconds, even with almost an incompletion per minute. That's ridiculous. For a sense of how much, recall that Richmond ran 57 plays in 29 minutes last week. Get those oxygen masks ready.
3. More meaningful gains on the ground. Bowling Green's run defense is objectively horrible, so it's important that Maryland keeps making progress on the ground. The Falcons had the 115th-best rushing defense in the country last year by S&P+, an opponent-adjusted metric based on efficiency and explosiveness. They gave up 4.98 yards per carry against a mid-major schedule. Then they lost three rotation defensive ends and two linebackers before this season. Then Tennessee proceeded to drop 400 ground yards on Bowling Green last week. Maryland's running backs should be licking their chops, and offensive coordinator Mike Locksley should be ready to feed them footballs.