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Maryland football vs. Northwestern preview: Terps’ QB situation uncertain ahead of key swing game

It’s Terps vs. Wildcats, but more importantly it’s Merrill vs. Medill.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Stop us if you’ve heard this before: Maryland football’s quarterback situation heading into Saturday’s game is uncertain.

When the Terps trot out onto Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium, we still may not know who will take the first snap under center. The last guy to start, Max Bortenschlager, took a high hit late in last week’s game and his status for the Northwestern game is up in the air. DJ Durkin—rightfully so—danced around questions in his media sessions this week about his quarterback’s status, which forces the Wildcats to prepare for both Bortenschlager and Caleb Henderson.

Whatever the decision, Maryland will have to establish its run game if it’s to have a chance against this Northwestern defense that held Penn State’s Saquon Barkley to only 75 rushing yards last week. Neither Bortenschlager nor Henderson seems capable of dominating a game through the air, so putting up another stinker in the run game will not bode well for the Terps.

If you’re not making the trip to College Park for this one, the game will be on ESPN2 at 3:30.

Northwestern Wildcats (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten)

2016 record: 7-6, 5-4 Big Ten

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald. Another young Big Ten head coach, the 41-year-old Fitzgerald is already the second-longest tenured coach in the conference. He played linebacker for the Wildcats in the 1990s before working as a grad assistant on Ron Vanderlinden’s 1998 Maryland staff, and eventually returning to Evanston for good in 2001. In his 11-year tenure at the Wildcats’ helm, he’s amassed a 79-65 record.

Players to know

Justin Jackson, senior, RB, 5’11/200, No. 21. If it weren’t for Saquon Barkley, Jackson may have a legitimate claim for being the best overall running back in the Big Ten. He plays almost every down, and has rushed for 339 yards and four touchdowns on 80 carries this season. The Wildcats will go as Jackson does, so keeping him contained should be priority No. 1 for Jermaine Carter Jr. and the Terrapin defense.

Clayton Thorson, junior, QB, 6’4/225, No. 18. If Maryland succeeds at shutting down Jackson, Northwestern’s offense will have to run through Thorson. The junior signal caller has a 61.8 completion percentage this season on the back of 1,208 passing yards and seven touchdowns. On the downside, he’s also thrown seven interceptions and has been sacked a Big Ten-most 19 times.

Nate Hall, junior, LB, 6’2/230, No. 32. The team’s third leading tackler will be the team’s leading tackler for the first half of Saturday’s game. Guys No. 1 and 2 on that list, Paddy Fisher and Godwin Igwebuike, were each ejected from the second half of last week’s game for targeting. He’s got 25 tackles (four for a loss, one sack) on the season in addition to two pass breakups.

Strength

Finishing drives. Just like a typical grind-it-out team, Northwestern likes to slow down the game, play rock-solid defense and capitalize on scoring opportunities. The Wildcats score 4.92 points per trip inside their opponents’ 40 yard lines, good for 36th in advanced stat guru Bill Connelly’s Finishing Drives category.

Weakness

Most other things. Advanced statistics don’t always tell the whole story, but they’re not complete liars. For example, Northwestern doesn’t rank higher than 60th on offense or defense in any other of Connelly’s Five Factors. That said, while they haven’t won, the Wildcats have given Wisconsin and Penn State some pretty good games in the past two weeks. Once the teams are on the field and the ball is snapped, we can pretty much throw all that advanced statistics junk out the window.

Three things to watch

1. Who the heck plays quarterback for Maryland? With Bortenschlager’s status still uncertain, this is the biggest question not only for Terps fans, but also for Northwestern’s coaching staff and defense. For that reason, seems unlikely, and very Durkin-esque that the entire rest of the world will find out who the starter is when Maryland takes its first offensive snap Saturday afternoon. If it is Bortenschlager, expect to see a lot of the same offense the Terps ran against Minnesota. But if it’s Henderson, who’s a bit more mobile, the game plan could look a little more similar to when Kasim Hill was at the helm.

2. Can Maryland get its running game going? This, as it is every week, is likely the difference between Maryland being able to keep this game close and pulling out a win or looking like it did against UCF and Ohio State. Northwestern was able to contain Barkley last week, but it seemed as if the Nittany Lions were just going through the motions at times, knowing they were talented enough to turn it on at any time and put the game away. Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison could capitalize on the Wildcats’ two leading tacklers missing the first half and give the Terps some early momentum.

3. Can Maryland keep Justin Jackson in check? This, as it is every week, is likely the difference between Maryland being able to keep this game close and pulling out a win or looking like it did against UCF and Ohio State.

But Jared, you just said that!

I know, but hear me out.

The winning formula for the Terps, as we’ve seen three times this season, is to run the ball, stop the run, and let their aggressive defensive backfield attack the ball late in the game. In Maryland’s three wins, they held their opponents to 98, 99 and 80 yards rushing. Conversely, they’ve run for 263, 367 and 262 yards when they’ve put up a win. The formula is clear; now they just have to execute.

Predictions

S&P+: Maryland 28, Northwestern 27

Me: Maryland 23, Northwestern 21