Leading up to Maryland football’s game against Michigan State, Perry Hills’ status was one big secret.
Hills went down with a shoulder injury right before halftime two weeks ago against. Penn State, and hadn’t seen the field in the six quarters since then.
He was listed as the starting quarterback in this week’s media guide, but Hills’ head coach said later in the week he’d be a “game time decision.”
DJ Durkin kept everyone waiting until the last possible second, putting Hills and backup Tyrrell Pigrome, who started last week against Minnesota, in the sideline huddle as the team prepared for its first series against Michigan State. But once Hills trotted out on the field, Maryland’s offense started consistently clicking in a way it hadn’t yet this season.
In his first start back, Hills operated the offense at a high level and finished with a career-high 21 completions on 27 attempts for 200 yards. Maryland’s offense wasn’t perfect and Hills wasn’t either, but this was as good of a game as any fan could have asked for.
“It feels really good. It’s hard just to watch and not be able to do anything,” Hills told reporters after the game. “It just feels really good to be back out there battling with the guys.”
His line and his running backs helped create a balanced offense, and Hills wasn’t under nearly as much pressure from opposing defenders as he’d been in other games. Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison combined for 220 rushing yards, and Hills was only sacked once.
“I feel like the offense just did a great job all-around,” Hills said. “The offensive line made plenty of blocks and gave me plenty of time. Receivers made blocks and got open. I could just hand the ball off to the running back and just let him run for  yards. It feels really good just to be able to manage that.”
Hills did much more than just “manage” the game, though. He led the team on two crucial drives in the fourth quarter that ultimately won the game for the Terps. Still, he received enough help from the rest of his offense, and that’s how it’ll have to be if Maryland wants to beat any of the non-Rutgers teams left on its schedule.
“I think our offensive line took some pride and ownership in that ‘we’re not going to get Perry banged up in this game,’ Durkin said. “We knew he can’t sit there and take a million hits. I think Perry did a good job of going down when he had to.”
Earlier this season, Hills hadn’t done a good job of avoiding hits while scrambling. Coaches lamented his lack of progress in this area many times, though they always attributed that to his incessant competitiveness.
“There were a couple runs previous to this where Perry was dropping his shoulder trying to gain two more yards and he’d get banged up,” Durkin said.
Against Michigan State, Hills played smart. He did a much better job of avoiding hits, diving to the ground or running out of bounds to avoid Spartan defenders.
“He looked better since the last time he was on the field, even though he had the shoulder injury,” wide receiver D.J. Moore said. “When he got back out there, he didn’t take as many hits as he used to and he got the ball out quicker.”
Moore caught an easy touchdown on some sort of busted coverage in the second quarter.
What a @TerpsFootball drive!— Maryland On BTN (@MarylandOnBTN) October 23, 2016
D.J. Moore punctuates it with this TD grab.
More video » https://t.co/jJmAUSFVSx https://t.co/cdf5RrJxro
When Maryland needed a score to put the game out of reach, Hills’ target would at least have a defender near him. He hit Levern Jacobs from nine yards out on a pass that wasn’t quite so easy to put the Terps up 28-17, a score that would go final a few minutes later.
TOUCHDOWN!— Maryland On BTN (@MarylandOnBTN) October 23, 2016
Perry Hills finds Levern Jacobs for the @TerpsFootball TD. https://t.co/tL2PAAcFyU
Hills deflected when a reporter asked him if this was the most “dialed in” he’s felt this season, but he sure looked better than he had in any other game Maryland’s played during his time as a starter. Maryland was rarely operating on all cylinders in 2015, and the offense almost could have operated solely on the ground in three of Maryland’s previous four wins in 2016.
It it should be noted that Michigan State’s pass defense isn’t at all good. Bill Connelly’s advanced metrics ranked the Spartans 102nd in that category entering the game, and the Terps won’t play a worse team until the season finale against Rutgers. Still, Hills needed to get back on track against someone.
Maryland will need this version of Perry Hills against the gauntlet of Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska, as well as when the Terps travel to play a good Indiana team next week.