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Maryland football vs. Rutgers preview

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Both teams will be competing for a bowl game.

Courtesy of Maryland Athleics
UMTerps

Maryland football stands at 5-6 as it enters the final week of the season, just one win away from a bowl game. The Terps’ opponent this week, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, find themselves in the exact same position: one win away from a trip to a bowl game.

“I’m just glad we’ve got fans that are disappointed that we’re fighting for a 6-6 season,” head coach Michael Locksley said. “That to me is something in itself from where we were when I got here to where we are now.”

Maryland and Rutgers both collected wins over Illinois and Indiana in conference play while both of its other remaining three wins came against nonconference opponents to kick off the season.

Maryland may have won four of the last six meetings between these two teams, however, last season when the Scarlet Knights and Terps faced off, Rutgers walked away with the win. The Scarlet Knights traveled to College Park, Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa was inactive and quarterback Eric Najarian played in his place.

The two teams went back-and-forth in the second half after Maryland went into the locker room after two quarters with a 3-0 lead. Rutgers ended the game with a field goal in overtime and the Terps closed out their season with a loss as they dropped to 2-3.

Now, these two teams will once again meet at the end of the season, this time with both teams looking to make a postseason trip. The game is set to kick at noon and will air on Big Ten Network.

“This season has been a lot of ups and downs. A lot of injuries and stuff like that, but, I’m just blessed and grateful that I still get to play,” Tagovailoa said. “I think the biggest goal right now is ending it with a bowl game and winning a bowl game. First, we gotta get through Rutgers and sending the seniors out the right way. I think that’s gonna make us proud of the season.”

Rutgers Scarlet Knights (5-6, 2-6 Big Ten)

2020 record: 3-6 Big Ten

Head coach Greg Schiano is in his 13th at the helm of Rutgers football. After coaching the program from 2001-11, he went on to work as the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2012-13 before a stint at Ohio State from 2016-18 as the associate head coach, defensive coordinator and safeties coach. He returned to Piscataway on Dec. 3, 2019, and is now in his second season back at Rutgers.

Under his leadership, the Scarlet Knights have made six bowl appearances and they will be vying for their seventh as they face off against the Terps. This season, the Terps and Scarlet Knights have found just two wins in the Big Ten both over the same teams in Indiana and Illinois. Rutgers also collected three straight nonconference wins against Temple, Syracuse and Delaware to kick off its season 3-0 before falling to then-No. 19 Michigan.

Players to know

Noah Vedral, senior quarterback, 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, No. 0 — This could be Vedral’s last regular season game as a Scarlet Knight if he elects not to use his extra year of eligibility granted due to the coronavirus pandemic. Anyone who watches this game can expect, much like the seniors on Maryland, he too would hope to extend his potential final collegiate season with a trip to a bowl game. He’s had a rocky season missing snaps in multiple games due to various injuries. However, when he’s been on the field, he’s helped move Rutgers’ offense along. He has completed 165 of his 276 attempted passes for 1,681 yards and seven touchdowns. Vedral has also rushed 91 times for 280 yards and two touchdowns.

Isaih Pacheco, junior running back, 5-foot-11, 215 pounds, No. 1 — Pacheco has had some breakout games for the Scarlet Knights this season as the team’s leading rusher. He’s had 152 carries for 595 yards averaging 51 yards per game. He’s also recorded five touchdowns this season including two two-score performances against both Delaware and Indiana. Despite being the 6.5-point underdogs against the Hoosiers, Pacheco’s pair of touchdowns in the first quarter put Rutgers up, 14-0 early in the game creating a difficult hole for Indiana to crawl out of. Maryland’s defense has struggled against the run this season and Pacheco can be a difference-maker in this one.

Bo Melton, senior wide receiver, 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, No. 18 The senior wideout leads the team in receptions with 51 catches for 570 yards. He’s averaging 57 yards per game and between him and Pacheco, the Scarlet Knights are able to distribute the ball well on offense. Last season against the Terps, Melton collected a season-high 62 rushing yards including a 44-yard rush and added a season-high two touchdowns. In that matchup, he also had five receptions for 45 yards.

“[Melton’s] a guy they try to get involved, get the ball to. Between him and Pacheco, they’ve got kinda the wildcat quarterback both those three guys... Vedral is the guy who makes this thing go,” Locksley said. “Bo Melton, his skillset, he had a pretty good game against us last year and he’s one of the ones when you watch him on offense that they try to feature him and Pacheco are the two guys that they try to get the ball to. We gotta obviously do our part to try to eliminate them as much as we can from their game plan.”

Adam Korsak, senior punter, 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, No. 94 — The senior punter is one of three finalists for the Ray Guy Award which honors the nation’s top punter. 35 of Korsak’s 66 punts this season have downed inside the 20-yard line. He had a season-long 74-yard punt against Penn State and has had none of his punts blocked by opposing teams. Korsak may put the Terps in a challenging field position making it difficult for them to find the end zone.

Strength

Splitting the pass and run game. The Scarlet Knights have 1,901 passing yards on the season and 1,524 rushing yards— a relatively even split. This means regardless of which offense route Rutgers takes, it will have the opportunity to take advantage of Maryland’s defense on multiple levels which ranks last in the Big Ten.

“With Rutgers, they do a lot of things on offense,” senior defensive back Jakorian Bennett said. “Like a lot of motions, shifts and they just try to get us to change our defense and stuff like that. But, we’re gonna do our adjustments, continue to watch film and pick up tips and hints on things they are gonna do to help us win.”

Weakness

Converting on third down. Although Maryland has struggled to convert on third down this season ranking 11th in the conference converting on just 35.8% of its opportunities, the Scarlet Knights have had an even tougher time doing so. Rutgers ranks last in the conference. Despite having attempted the third-most plays on third down in the conference behind Indiana and Penn State, the Scarlet Knights have converted just 54 of their 168 attempts, a 32.1% conversation rate.

Three things to watch

1. Will Maryland beat itself? A narrative all season for this team has been the costly penalties Maryland has collected as well as turnovers and drops when the Terps need to convert. This problem continued to catch up to the Terps when they faced then-No. 8 Michigan. In the second quarter of that game, Tagovailoa moved the offense down the field just four yards away from the end zone. Penalities in the form of a chop block, false start and illegal shift on the drive put Maryland in a position in which it couldn’t find the end zone. The Terps settled for a field goal giving up points they needed if they were hoping to piece together a comeback. For Maryland to defeat Rutgers, it will have to clean up the penalties and drops in addition to winning the turnover battle.

2. Can the Terps’ defense hold Rutgers to fewer than 30 points? Maryland has not held an opponent under the 30-point mark since Sept. 20 when it defeated Kent State, 37-16. The Terps only held opponents to under 25 points in the first four games of the season. Maryland has struggled against ranked teams however, its defense also failed to hold Indiana to under 30 despite walking away with the win. The Terps also struggled against the deep ball, specifically when they faced Penn State’s Jahan Dotson and the run game against Minnesota. So, there’s a chance that Maryland’s defense struggles to contain Rutgers regardless of whether they run the ball more or elect to rely more heavily on the passing game.

3. Which team will get one more game? With both teams standing at 5-6, this is a win-or-go-home situation for Rutgers and Maryland. While the Terps have not had a bowl game appearance since 2016, the Scarlet Knights have not done so since 2014. Both teams are looking to end their bowl game droughts and a win for either team would be a significant accomplishment for either program after not playing in a postseason game for this many seasons.

“The vibe has been good,” Bennett said. “You know, we’re just trying to stay together and just obviously get that sixth win. Just do whatever we gotta do, keep working, keep practicing, stay in the film room, do whatever we have to do to get that sixth win.”