Maryland football has coasted past its first two opponents — Buffalo and Charlotte — to a 2-0 record. But now, the first real test of the season stands in front of the Terps: SMU.
“Excited about the opportunity here in ‘The Shell,’ 7:30 at night,” head coach Mike Locksley said. “Really hope that our fans and our community show up for the players, for our team. To have an opportunity to play a team, which I think is a top-25 team in my mind, SMU — explosive offense, play really good defense. To have them here at home is a great opportunity for us to take the next step as we continue to try and create an identity for our program in [2022.]”
Neither of the Terps’ first two victories will stand out on its résumé as the season progresses. After defeating Buffalo 31-10, the Bulls fell to FCS opponent Holy Cross at home in week two. Maryland destroyed Charlotte 56-21, but the 0-3 49ers are also seen as one of the worst FBS teams. According to The Athletic, both the Bulls and 49ers are bottom-15 teams in the nation.
It is safe to say that getting a win against the Mustangs will be a much more arduous task.
Though SMU is loaded with new faces and is led by a first-year head coach, the Mustangs will not be fooling anyone. Led by one of America’s best quarterback-wide receiver duos, the Mustangs will have Maryland on high alert when they come to College Park this weekend.
Saturday’s game is set for a primetime 7:30 p.m. kickoff at Maryland Stadium and will air on Fox Sports 1.
According to DraftKings Sportsbook, Maryland is favored by 2.5 points and the over/under is 74 points.
SMU Mustangs (2-0)
2021 record: 8-4 (4-4 The American)
Head coach Rhett Lashlee is in the midst of his first season leading the SMU program. Lashlee was hired on Nov. 29, 2021, marking his return to SMU and his first head coaching opportunity. The Springdale, Arkansas native spent the 2018 and 2019 seasons as the Mustangs’ offensive coordinator, the latter of which he was named a semifinalist for the Broyles Award, which annually honors the nation’s top assistant coach. Lashlee comes back to Dallas after a successful couple seasons as Miami’s offensive coordinator.
SMU breezed past its first two foes, defeating North Texas, 48-10, on the road in week one and beating FCS Lamar, 45-16, in its first home game last Saturday. The Mustangs check in at No. 34 in ESPN’s SP+ rankings — 11 spots higher than Maryland — which should say all there is to know about how tricky of an opponent they could be.
Players to know
Tanner Mordecai, senior quarterback, No. 8 — Mordecai returns to SMU as one of the nation’s best quarterbacks after a spectacular 2021. The Oklahoma transfer threw 39 touchdowns — the fifth-most in the nation — shattering former SMU quarterback Shane Buechele’s single-season record of 34 passing touchdowns. Mordecai has started this fall strong, throwing for seven touchdowns and averaging 322 passing yards per contest.
Rashee Rice, senior wide receiver, No. 11 — One of the best wideouts the country has to offer, Rice poses a major threat to an inconsistent Maryland defense. Already with 17 receptions, 298 yards and three touchdowns on the year, Rice has proven to be an elusive player in open space and over the middle of the field. Jakorian Bennett and the Maryland secondary will certainly have their hands full with Rice.
“I think the big thing for us is that we better be prepared to be challenged vertically,” Locksley said. “They take at least 10 shots a game. No. 11, their receiver [Rashee Rice] gets a lot of vertical shots. He’s targeted on close to 50% of the balls thrown. Big-time player.”
Bryan Massey, junior safety, No. 0 — Massey has been tabbed as a preseason All-American by several publications, including Sports Illustrated. The recognition praises his ability as a kick returner, though. Last season, Massey had two kick return touchdowns and averaged 36.1 yards per return. Massey was also solid in the secondary last season, registering 22 solo tackles, six pass breakups and an interception. He suited up last game according to The Dallas Morning News’ Joseph Hoyt, but he has yet to play this season. On SMU’s two-deep depth chart, Massey is listed as a starter at free safety and kick returner.
Elijah Chatman, senior defensive tackle, No. 40 — The Mustangs’ big six-foot, 291-pound nose tackle returns for his fourth year with the program. Chatman had an impactful 2021 season, recording 40 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and a team-high two fumble recoveries; he was honored with Second Team All-AAC accolades for his performance. Chatman already has six tackles and a sack this season, and the matchup between he and Maryland’s veteran offensive line should be interesting.
Electric offense. The recipe is simple for the Mustangs: play at a fast pace and score. SMU has actually been dominated in time of possession this season — it is only averaging about 22 minutes of possession per game — and its opponents have recorded more plays than it as well. That has not mattered, though, as the 18th-best total offense in the nation thus far is averaging 7.8 yards per play and 514.5 yards per game.
“We know that they like the deep ball,” redshirt senior defensive lineman Greg China-Rose said. “We know that they’re gonna come in here, try and play smashmouth football...They have a lot of veterans on their O-line, returned a lot, their quarterback’s a returner.”
It starts with Mordecai and Rice, but there is plenty more as well. Senior running back Tre Siggers was statistically a top-10 running back in The American last season. The offensive line is retooled with six linemen with SMU starting experience returning and transfers from Virginia and Georgia in the fold. SMU’s offense will be a tremendous gauge of where the Terps’ defense stands heading into Big Ten play.
Pass defense. This game is expected to be a shootout for a reason. Yes, the Mustangs’ secondary has been stout thus far, allowing only 184 air yards per game for a top-40 passing defense in the nation. However, the caliber of the opponent must be considered. North Texas and Lamar, no offense, have nowhere near the caliber of offense that Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa and company have. In 2021, SMU had the seventh-worst pass defense in all of FBS, allowing 278.1 passing yards per game. This will remain to be a weakness until proven against a tougher opponent.
Three things to watch
1. How will Maryland hold against the highest-tempo offense it will see all season? Pace has been a big emphasis for Locksley’s team all week long. Locksley acknowledged that SMU will be the fastest offense on his schedule this year, one that thrives attacking both horizontally and vertically through the air. The Terps have made adjustments in practice to adapt to the upcoming pace of play but must also rely on the foundation they built leading up to Saturday.
“It’s the foundation that we put in during training camp, which is what training camp is for, is to prepare you for your season,” Locksley said. “Obviously, we’re a team that plays with tempo, and everyday we have a period where we just go with what we call our fastballs, which helps us on offense, but it really has helped our defense to not be such a drastic thing for them to face because they see it out of us.”
2. Will Dontay Demus Jr. make a statement? Demus has been relatively quiet in the young season, catching only five passes for 54 yards. Luckily for Maryland, it has plenty of other star weapons in the passing game, included but not limited to wideouts Rakim Jarrett, Jeshaun Jones and Jacob Copeland. The truth is that it was a miracle that Demus even made it back on the field for snap one of week one after his gruesome season-ending knee injury against Iowa last October. It is only a matter of a time before Demus is the star this year, and Saturday could be the day.
3. Maryland needs Taulia Tagovailoa to continue to be confident and poised. Tagovailoa was nothing short of special against Charlotte, climbing the program record books in the victory. Tagovailoa completed 27-of-31 passes and scored five total touchdowns against the 49ers. Perhaps his most impressive play, though, was his fourth touchdown pass, where he evaded multiple pass rushers and calmly flung the ball to Jones for the score. The play epitomized how impressive he was when flustered, as his 94.1 passing grade under pressure was the highest in the nation in week two, according to PFF.
“I think Coach Enos always talks about that,” Tagovailoa said. “...I have to do my job, whatever is going on. I have to have laser focus downfield and have a feel of the pocket and just react and step up in the pocket and trusting that the O-line will block and stuff like that, which they do a great job of. Sometimes it gets — you get a little nosy looking down and you want to see what’s going on.”
This is an area of the game where Tagovailoa has improved, and he must stay composed and just manage the game as it comes to him against the Mustangs.
“We all have a job, and I think that’s where I show my toughness as a quarterback, as a leader, on third down — just sit down in the pocket and win situations with my arm or maybe maneuver in the pocket and extend plays with my legs,” Tagovailoa added. “So it’s something I’m still continuing to work on, and I’m trying to get better at that too.”
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