Maryland football will take on Rutgers this weekend for the fourth time in the teams’ four years in the Big Ten. The first two matchups involved big second-half comebacks, while last year, the Terps won going away to clinch bowl eligibility.
We brought in Aaron Breitman from our SB Nation pals over at On The Banks to lend us some insight on the Scarlet Knights. You can follow him (@aaron_breitman) or the site (OTB_SBNation) on Twitter for more. Our corresponding Q&A is here.
Testudo Times: Since joining the Big Ten, Maryland and Rutgers played two close, exciting games before a bit of a one-sided affair last season. How have the Scarlet Knights changed since then?
On the Banks: They've improved on defense and most notably, special teams. The offense has a different look and a lot of different personnel, but the results haven't been that much better than last season. The one area they've improved the most is reducing turnovers and penalties, which is progress.
On defense, it's been a bend, but don't break philosophy. Two starters have been missing from the secondary since late September and the defense has given up a ton of yards, but Rutgers has been much more competitive. They've done a good job defending opponents on third down and that's been key. Rutgers has also already surpassed their interception total from last season and have the second most in the Big Ten.
Special Teams is where things have really helped this season. True freshman kicker Justin Davidovicz has made a big difference on kickoffs and grad transfer Ryan Anderson is the best punter Rutgers has had in years. Coverage teams are much improved too, with the kickoff coverage team tops in the Big Ten right now. The talent level has increased with an influx of true freshmen. This unit has gone from being a major liability to being the strength of the team. It's one of the biggest reasons that Rutgers has been more competitive this season.
TT: What defensive players should Maryland fans be aware of that could contain the Terps occasionally explosive offense?
OTB: The best pass rusher is defensive end Kemoko Turay, who typically attacks the right right of the offensive line. He is super athletic and needs to have a big game on Saturday. Turays stats aren't eye popping, but he has generated a good amount of pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season and barely missed on a few sacks.
Lineman Sebastian Joseph, Kevin Wilkins, and Jon Bateky have been good at times, but struggled mightily against Michigan last week. Rutgers has gotten shredded in the run game the past two weeks, so hopefully these three can bouncback strong this Saturday.
Deonte Roberts is a captain and starting middle linebacker who has had a great season so far. He keeps the defense organized and is a tackling machine. You'll hear a lot about linebacker Trevor Morris as well, as he leads the team in tackles. He has improved this season, but one weakness for the linebacker group continues to be in pass coverage. They've gotten better in this area, but still have a ways to go.
All-Big Ten defensive back Blessuan Austin was lost for the season with a torn ACL and three year starting safety Saquon Hampton has been out a month with his ability to return this season in doubt. However, the secondary has responded and held its own in their absence. Strong safety Kiy Hester has been playing hurt but is a big play threat in the back of the defense. Sophomores KJ Gray and Jawuan Harris, last season's leading receiver who moved over to defense a month ago, have played pretty well.
TT: Conversely, who are some guys on offense who could spoil Maryland's road trip to The Banks?
OTB: Janarion Grant is the best playmaker on the team, but has struggled to get going this season. He has been knocked out of games and also wasn't being made the priority he should have been earlier in the season. However, new OC Jerry Kill finally started getting creative in using Grant and he took a few direct snaps last week. He ended up running one for a 65 yard touchdown against Michigan. Grant is the leading receiver and can take a short pass a long way in a hurry.
Tight End Jerome Washington is a reliable target in the passing game. It requires multiple tacklers to take him down and he has great hands. He's another player I think Kill needs to get the ball to more often.
The offense has shifted to a more run heavy unit and there is good depth at running back. Miami grad transfer Gus Edwards is the starter and leading rusher. He had been steady and did break a 74 yard run for a touchdown on the second play from scrimmage that set the tone for the win over Purdue. Robert Martin has rushed for over 2,000 yards in his career, but gets less carries per game than Edwards. He is better when he gets into a rhythm and can grind what look like short gains into larger chunks with his hard running style. A revelation has been true freshman back Raheem Blackshear, who emerged in the first win of the season against Morgan State. He scored key touchdowns and had some big runs in wins over Illinois and Purdue, but missed the Michigan game due to injury. He is a small, speedy back who can explode for a big play. Rutgers will need a lot of production from this group in order to beat Maryland.
As for quarterback, Gio Rescigno took over after the bye week and has been steady, but not spectacular. The key has been his decision making and limiting turnovers, as he has just one lost fumble and zero interceptions in the three games he has started. Gio is much better when he is mobile, but he has a tendency to run with a reckless abandon and he's been banged up since his first start. He is a decent passer, but his strength has been in keeping the offense together and minimizing mistakes. We may see some of true freshman Johnathan Lewis this week as well. He is a big kid who is more advanced running than throwing right now, although he has a cannon of an arm. The staff has worked him in spots, but an ankle injury has limited him the past three weeks. If he does play this weekend, he will be s threat in the run game.
TT: What has to happen for the Rutgers passing game to get going?
OTB: The offensive line needs to do a much better job with pass protection. The biggest area of need in my opinion for this program is improving the talent and depth on both the offensive and defensive lines.
There have been plenty of grumbling from fans this season about Jerry Kill's conservative playcalling, but its tough to call too many mid-range to deep pass plays when the quarterback doesn't have the time to throw it. It has been frustrating that Kill hasn't utilized more slant pass plays this season and I think his willingness to call more of them against Maryland would really help.
That being said, the wide receiver group, which includes three true freshmen, has struggled to gain separation too often. Ironically, the least hyped of the freshmen trio, Hunter Hayek, is starting to emerge in the passing game.
To answer your question though, the offensive line needs to hold up and give Gio time to operate for the pass game to be effective against Maryland. Being able to establish the run early on will be key as well, which could lead to play action calls being an effective approach in the passing game.
TT: In terms of coaching staffs, each team is in Year 2 of a new experiment. What's the Chris Ash Era looked like thus far, and how does it project for the next couple years?
OTB: It looks a lot better than things looked one month ago. After a 1-4 start, 56-0 loss to Ohio State and injuries piling up, fans were legitimately concerned about a 1-11 season. The bye week could not have come at a better time and Ash has started to show progress as a head coach. One trait he has displayed throughout his tenure is his ability to learn from mistakes and move forward. He upgraded the coaching staff in the offseason by changing course from the young, flashy assistants he hired in year one to grizzled veterans in OC Jerry Kill, running back coach Lester Erb, and defensive backs coach Henry Baker. The biggest change he made this season was benching Louisville grad transfer QB Kyle Bolin, who started the first five games and struggled mightily. The team has been resurgent since the bye week and it's a great sign that this team didn't quit and has gotten significantly better since their embarrassing loss to Eastern Michigan.
In terms of the next couple of years, obviously the key is recruiting. Considering Rutgers went 2-10 last season, the staff has done a good job assembling a solid class so far (17 3-star commits) and it got even better this week with the surprise commitment of 4-star QB Artur Sitkowski, who flipped from Miami. Hopefully, Ash can put together a couple more solid classes and his staff can prove they can develop players. I think playing in the East certainly puts a ceiling on how far Rutgers can climb in the short term, at least until they really break through on the recruiting trail and start landing the top players in New Jersey. However, after the improvement seen this past month, I think it's possible this team competes for a bowl bid next season. How they fare against Maryland, Indiana and the West crossover games will ultimately determine how quickly they can get back to playing in December. I do think the program is headed on the right track, as Ash has done a great job in changing the culture, improving facilities, and being resourceful in upgrading the roster. The only thing he hadn't shown before October was the ability to outcoach an opponent and win in Big Ten play. Slowly, but surely, that's starting to happen now. Saturday against Maryland is a big opportunity to cement that real progress occurred in his second season and that would be a major step forward for the program.
TT: Complete this sentence: _____ will win by a score of _____ because _____.
OTB: Rutgers will win by a score of 31-30 because this team is starting to learn how to win ugly. The victories over Illinois and Purdue were no works of art, but for the first time in what seems like a few seasons, this team was able to grind it out, minimize mistakes, and make plays when they needed to. The confidence level of the team is way up and even though they lost by three touchdowns at Michigan, they were competitive and showed a lot of improvement against that team compared to the year before. In rebuilding a program, it's so important to learn to win any way possible early on, when talent and depth is still an issue. Rutgers is starting to do that under Ash and this game is huge in continuing the narrative that the program is much improved in his second season. I think Rutgers wins on the ground on offense and playing at home will give them the edge to make one more big play than Maryland to win the game.