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Maryland football vs. Ohio State preview: Terps seek an upset in Columbus

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This will be the Terps’ toughest test of the season thus far.

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

After a 3-1 start, including an unlikely road win at Minnesota in the Big Ten conference opener, Maryland football continues its longest road trip of the season Saturday at Ohio State.

The record itself isn’t that surprising, but how Maryland got here—losing two starting quarterbacks and beating Texas but losing to UCF—was atypical of recent Terps teams. Where past teams may have folded with no expectations and a third-string quarterback, this team seems to have rallied around Max Bortenschlager, putting together a complete team win against Minnesota.

Now the Terps enter a hostile environment against a perennial Big Ten and National Title contender in Ohio State. The Buckeyes didn’t look their best early this season, letting Indiana hang around for a half before eventually putting them away, and then losing to Oklahoma 31-16 in Week 2.

There’s been a lot of hoopla in DJ Durkin’s first year-plus at Maryland about him being on Urban Meyer’s coaching staffs at Bowling Green and Florida. Meyer spoke highly of Durkin in his press conference Tuesday, calling him “one of the top two or three that [he’s] ever had” on his staff. Even with that kind of praise for his former assistant, Meyer and the Buckeyes showed no mercy when these teams met last year, as they left College Park with a 62-3 win.

When both teams take the field Saturday, though, all that history is just that—history.

“They’re a totally different team, we’re a totally different team,” Durkin said on his Thursday conference call with reporters. “It’s a new season. That was a year ago.”

If you’re not making the trip to Columbus, you can tune in to see just how far each team has come at 4 p.m. ET on Fox.

Ohio State Buckeyes (4-1, 2-0 Big Ten)

2016 record: 11-2, 8-1 Big Ten

Head coach Urban Meyer. He’s one of the best head coaches in the country, and has been for quite some time. Meyer is 65-7 as the Buckeyes’ head coach, including a the first ever College Football Playoff National Championship game in 2014 and another Playoff appearance at the end of the 2016 season. In 199 games as a head coach, he boasts a gaudy 169-30 record, giving him the highest winning percentage (.849) among active coaches.

Players to know

J.T. Barrett, senior, QB, 6’2/220, No. 16. Barrett struggled early this season—especially in the Oklahoma loss—leading some to call for the backup to see more significant playing time. He’s held onto the job, though, and righted the ship in recent weeks. Last Saturday, he threw for 275 yards, rushed for 89 more, and was responsible for three touchdowns. That performance moved into 10th place all-time in Big Ten history in total yards.

Mike Weber, sophomore, RB, 5’10/214, No. 25. A nagging hamstring injury hampered the sophomore bowling ball early this season, but he notched a career-high three touchdowns against Rutgers last week while averaging 4.4 yards per carry. He forms a scary one-two punch with true freshman J.K. Dobbins, who’s been the most productive Buckeye back this season, and is more than capable of ruining a defense’s day all on his own. But when Weber and Dobbins are running well, there are two different kinds of runners to focus on stopping, which can make any defense miserable.

Denzel Ward, junior, CB, 5’11/191, No. 12. On the whole, Ohio State’s defensive backs haven’t been as good this season as in recent years, but Ward has stood out as the best of the bunch. When targeted, quarterbacks are averaging a 37.5 passer rating against him, which ranks fourth among Big Ten cornerbacks (Maryland’s JC Jackson is fifth).

Strength

Rushing offense. The Buckeyes rank third in Rushing Success Rate, meaning they get the yards on the ground needed to deem a play successful. Dobbins has been an outstanding back as a true freshman, amassing 573 yards and three touchdowns on 75 carries. Add that to Barrett’s 311 yards as a quarterback and the slow reemergence of Weber and the Buckeyes have steamrolled over everybody except Oklahoma this season. They’re also first in Stuff Rate, meaning they almost never get tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage on run plays.

Weakness

Passing defense. Outside of Ward, Ohio State’s secondary has been suspect at times this season. The Buckeyes’ defense is 69th in the country in passing success rate and 80th in passing downs success rate. Maryland hasn’t been great through the air this season, but if Bortenschlager can find D.J. Moore and Taivon Jacobs for enough big gains to keep Ohio State’s defense honest, there could be a little extra room for Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison to work their magic.

Three things to watch

1. How does Maryland’s defense stack up against Ohio State’s rushing attack? The Terps’ defense looked great against the run in the first two games of the season, giving up less than 100 yards on the ground in each, but then got gashed for 250 against UCF. They returned to form with a season-low 80 rushing yards allowed last week against Minnesota, but they’ve yet to face a rushing attack like the Buckeyes’. Maryland will likely continue to try to play aggressive, single-high-safety, man-under defense to counter the attack. The side that wins that battle could decide whether this game is close or not.

2. Can Bortenschlager attack the Buckeyes secondary? He outplayed expectations against Minnesota, but still only put up 154 yards through the air. That’s fine, since Maryland’s run game is one of the best in the nation, but Ohio State’s stout run defense could negate that. The Buckeyes secondary has proven to be vulnerable at times this season. Completing an intermediate or long pass early in the game could set the tone and give Johnson and Harrison more room to run.

3. Will Maryland be able to run the ball successfully? Ohio State’s run defense ranks No. 7 in Rushing IsoPPP, which means that teams don’t rip off big plays on the ground against them. But Maryland’s rushing offense is No. 8 in the offensive version of the same category. Again, the Terps’ success on the ground will likely depend on their ability to move the ball through the air. If they struggle in that department, the Buckeyes won’t hesitate to leave an eighth man in the box and dare Bortenschlager to beat them through the air.

Predictions

S&P+: Ohio State 42, Maryland 16

Me: Ohio State 40, Maryland 26