Two games into the 2017 season, Maryland football fans were filled with optimism and lofty aspirations. When freshman quarterback Kasim Hill went down with an injury in the Terps’ 28-point loss to UCF, those aspirations seemed to crumble with him.
There’s another game this weekend, and each of the eight Saturdays after that. That sentence looks less exciting now than it did some 48 hours ago. Maryland could certainly right the ship against Minnesota, but it won’t be easy.
The UCF game was a slow, gradual, ubiquitous collapse.
One play after Hill went down, the Terps kicked a field goal to take a 3-0 lead. From there, they were outscored 38-7.
The most obvious drop-off was under center, as sophomore Max Bortenschlager looked overwhelmed by the Knights’ defense. He was sacked five times and threw a pair of interceptions. With the passing attack not much of a threat, UCF was able to stack the box and stuff Maryland’s running backs. The “Presidential Backfield” of Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison was held to 73 yards on 21 rushes, with no play extending beyond 14 yards.
The Terrapin defense, meanwhile, seemed to wear down. There were missed tackles, miscommunications and defenders simply getting beaten. UCF lost starting running back Jawon Hamilton in the first quarter and still pounded Maryland for more yards on the ground than their first two opponents combined, with 258 on 39 carries. Quarterback McKenzie Milton threw for 178 yards and ran for 94 more.
It’s not unreasonable to think Maryland wins Saturday’s game with 60 minutes of Hill. But the truth is that every unit wilted, and the game counts, and question marks are popping up like arcade moles all over the field.
So who’s playing quarterback this weekend? And beyond that?
It’s difficult to see the replay of Hill going down and think that whatever injury he suffered won’t carry over into at least this weekend’s action. We should have a real answer on Tuesday, when Durkin addresses the local media. Until then, it’s just shrugs and crossed fingers.
Bortenschlager is still young, and will undoubtedly improve over the course of the season if he sees extended reps. But at the moment, he’s far from what Maryland needs its quarterback to be. He’s played seven quarters against FBS opponents and the Terps have 14 combined points.
If Hill’s injury is serious, then the Terps’ ceiling for this season may depend largely on the status of Caleb Henderson’s foot. The UNC transfer was the apparent favorite at the position during the spring, but hasn’t been healthy since. He evidently wasn’t at full strength Saturday, and it’s unclear if he will be for the Minnesota game. It’s hard to say how effective he’d be even at 100 percent, considering he’s thrown one career pass and it was for UNC. But after Saturday, Door No. 3 looks much more appealing.
Regardless, expectations aren’t going to be what they were just days ago.
The Terps are 2-1, which is the record they were widely expected to have at this point. But because of the way they got there, and the laundry list of injury question marks, there’s reason to be worried.
Beating Texas in the fashion Maryland did, then backing that up with a 63-point outburst, will naturally shift a fan base’s expectations. However, the reality was that the depth of talent on the roster still had a ways to go. On Saturday, that reality hit College Park like a sledgehammer.
Maryland’s schedule from here is a nine-week gauntlet. The Terps still have those four games against top-15 teams, and other matchups that seemed like toss-ups in the preseason might shift slightly the other way now. The level of play seen in those last three quarters Saturday won’t cut it against any of those teams.
Heading into Big Ten play with a true freshman quarterback would come with its natural concerns, even with Hill looking as impressive as he has. Starting the conference slate with a fourth-string quarterback would be a recipe for disaster. Pinning hopes on an unknown would be just that: an unknown.
Saturday’s game against Minnesota—who beat Maryland 31-10 in College Park last year because the Terps couldn’t get their offense going with an overwhelmed quarterback under center—suddenly seems like a monumental measuring stick. And that’s where all of Maryland’s focus has turned. We’ll see how it goes.