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Maryland football will rely on unlikely heroes for the remainder of the 2021 season

The next man up mentality is in full force for the Terps after major injuries to the team’s starters.

Indiana v Maryland Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Maryland football needed a few surprise breakout performances last Saturday against Indiana, and for good reason.

The program was in the midst of a three-game losing streak, the defense had been porous over the last few weeks and the offense hadn’t scored more than 17 points dating back to Sept. 25 against Kent State.

Injuries had derailed the Terps after their perfect 4-0 start in 2021, with many players going down with injuries on both sides of the ball. The Terps’ defense has taken its fair share of hits with the secondary being injury-ridden since the beginning of October and the banged-up linebackers corps still making its way back to full strength heading into the late stretch of the season.

Two of Maryland’s best wide receivers to start the season, senior Dontay Demus Jr. and junior Jeshaun Jones, were ruled out for the remainder of 2021 last month.

Head coach Michael Locksley has consistently been preaching a “next man up” mentality all season long, and with Maryland entering last Saturday’s game with a 4-3 record against the Hoosiers, Locksley finally got what he has been waiting for. The Terps put on a performance that was just good enough, clinching the 38-35 win to snap their skid.

Senior wide receiver Carlos Carriere had one of the most unexpected performances of Maryland’s season. He came into Maryland’s eighth game of the season with a total of seven catches for 61 yards and two touchdowns. He exploded onto the scene, reeling in a team-high eight catches for 134 yards and two touchdowns. Carriere’s second touchdown early in the fourth quarter was one of the best plays of the season, as the senior side-stepped a Hoosier en route to a 45-yard score.

“... A guy like Carlos [Carriere] has kept his head down, continued to grind and plow through whatever things faced him and he was rewarded for his hard work this weekend and he was able to produce for us to help us win,” Locksley said.

Another wideout that hit a season-high was freshman Marcus Fleming. Fleming, who started his 2021 season with three catches for a net gain of four yards in the program’s games against Illinois, Kent State and Ohio State, has solidified himself in the lineup with his recent performances. He broke out with five catches for 62 yards and a touchdown back on Oct. 23 against Minnesota. And in the game with Indiana, Fleming managed a season-high in yards with 70 on four receptions.

“I think he’s just started to take what he’s doing more seriously in terms of actually being able to be a playmaker for us,” sophomore wide receiver Rakim Jarrett said. “I think once he started to get that in his mindset, I mean, I think he’s showing you what you’re all seeing, the speed and yards after catch, which is amazing.”

Fleming has done a great job spreading the field for Maryland in the team’s last two games and the man getting him the ball on offense has taken notice of both Fleming’s efforts to improve in all aspects of his game.

“Marcus Fleming, I think the biggest growth that I’ve seen from him is probably maturity,” junior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa said. “When he first came in he was a very intelligent player... he’s quick, he’s fast. Just him getting to learn the offense and do the right things on and off the field I think that’s the biggest growth. It’s so good to see it come to fruition.”

Both Carriere and Fleming are growing into a formidable pair for Tagovailoa, especially for a wide receivers corps that had a few spots in the starting lineup for the taking. The duo has helped Maryland recapture some of the explosive offensive play that it produced earlier in the season.

It’s safe to say that Tagovailoa’s budding connection with Carriere and Fleming is coming at a perfect time for the program and it started all the way back in the summer.

“I felt like we put in the work throughout the offseason... and just working on timing,” Tagovailoa said. “I think all those times, the more we do it after practice, during camp and it just adds up and eventually, you know, that hard work is going to pay off. Someone like Carlos and Marcus, I think everyone is just seeing the hard work that they’ve been putting in.”

But outside of the wide receivers corps, the running backs have been dealing with injuries of their own. Running back Isaiah Jacobs has been out with an injury, leaving the door wide open for a back to step up behind starter Tayon Fleet-Davis.

Enter senior back Challen Faamatau. The 5-foot-11 running from Hawaii appeared in four games in 2020, posting just one carry and one catch in what was a very quiet season for him. Flip the script to 2021 and over the past few weeks, Faamatau has cemented himself as a top-three runner on Maryland’s roster.

Faamatau collected back-to-back games with at least seven carries in the contests with Ohio State and Minnesota, after starting the season with a combined eight carries for 45 yards in the program’s opening five matchups. However, Faamatau broke through for the Terps in a big way, embodying Locksley’s next-man-up mantra.

He ran the ball 21 times last Saturday, the most carries a Maryland running back has received in a single game this season. He may have only finished with 44 yards, but he ended with two touchdowns from the one-yard line. Faamatau also had his season-high in receiving yards with 37 against Indiana to give him the most scrimmage yards he’s had in a single game all season.

Without the efforts from Carriere, Fleming and Faamatau, players that weren’t expected by any means to help lead the Terps’ offense at the beginning of the year, Maryland may have been sitting at 4-4 instead of hitting the five-win mark.

And with just four games remaining on the 2021 schedule, Maryland is going to need even more breakout efforts from fairly unproven players.

One person that Locksley directly pointed out was senior wide receiver Brian Cobbs, who hasn't necessarily been an impact player when looking at his numbers. Cobbs has struggled with corralling the ball and has just two catches over the previous two games.

However, Locksley thinks that there’s more than meets the eye regarding the wideout that has combined for just 10 catches and 115 yards this season.

“He’s one of these senior guys and veteran players that we’ve leaned on over the last few years with the leadership he brings,” Locksley said about Cobbs. “There’s a lot of ways to have a positive impact on your team and unfortunately, how you guys grade or judge is typically via the stats and what they do in the game and what I see is a guy that has become very unselfish and whatever role we’ve asked of him, he contributed.”

A performance like the one Carriere had last Saturday may have been an anomaly. But, for Maryland to stay afloat in its search for six wins, the hope is that other players, that haven’t necessarily excelled this season, like Cobbs, will come through in a big way for the program.

“We need a guy like Brian Cobbs to have a Carlos Carriere-type moment which to me is something that we’ll continue to challenge because we have talent,” Locksley said.

After all, Maryland is just one win from being bowl eligible despite its ongoing injuries and the need for depth players to step up on a weekly basis. The Terps haven’t been to a bowl game since 2016, and after capturing the fifth win over Indiana, all eyes will be on if they can climb the mountain to take the next critical step for the program.

“It is now, it’s not something we would talk about before but because we are at five and this is the next game, there’s a couple of things that are at stake,” Locksley said. “Obviously, six is the magic number to become bowl eligible, we all know it. Because we now have five we can talk about six, but again, it’s the next game mentality.”

For now, Maryland will look ahead to Penn State on Nov. 6, an opponent ranked at the No. 22 spot in the latest AP Top 25 poll. The remaining teams that the Terps will face currently have a combined record of 24-8 and the road the rest of the way will not be easy.

And if the last game against Indiana proved anything, it’s going to take more than the regular starters to get the job done. The unlikely heroes will need to shine for Maryland to reach No. 6.