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Maryland’s passing game doesn’t need to be amazing, but it needs to be better

The Terps’ passing game is sputtering, and some tough defenses are on the horizon.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland football has talent and experience in the backfield. They’re good at running the ball, as they have been to some degree in each of the their two previous seasons. Ty Johnson, Anthony McFarland and Tayon Fleet-Davis should remain threatening behind a now-healthy offensive line, and they’ll be the focus of any defense that faces the Terps.

This is to say: Maryland’s going to run more than it passes. That’s fine, but when the air attack is lagging behind like it has been, it puts the Terps’ offense in a precarious position.

There’s no particular reason to want Maryland’s run/pass split to be 50/50. That doesn’t guarantee anything. Maryland’s good at running the ball, and is right to make Johnson and Co. the focus of the offense. What the team will aim for is to be able to keep defenses guessing when it needs to. A threatening passing game makes a defense less likely to go all-in on stopping the run, as many teams do when they face Maryland.

Here’s where the problem comes in: Maryland’s passing game isn’t threatening enough to make defenses worry. The passing game “pulling its weight” could mean a number of things. It does not mean this:

maryland football-kasim hill-tyrrell pigrome
Maryland QBs vs. Michigan

But diagnosing Maryland’s passing struggles requires digging into more than one performance against one very good defense.

Everyone’s struggled against Michigan, so the statline above is understandable. But Maryland’s season-long performance through the air reveals some troubling trends.

Maryland 2018 passing stats

Player Ht, Wt Year Comp Att Yards TD-INT Comp Rate Yards/Comp Sack Rate Yards/Att. Marg. Eff. Marg. Expl.
Player Ht, Wt Year Comp Att Yards TD-INT Comp Rate Yards/Comp Sack Rate Yards/Att. Marg. Eff. Marg. Expl.
Kasim Hill 6'2, 234 FR 47 86 578 3-2 54.70% 12.3 8.50% 5.8 -10.50% 0.47
Tyrrell Pigrome 5'11, 205 SO 6 11 40 0-1 54.50% 6.7 21.40% 1.8 -25.90% -0.1
Jeshaun Jones 6'2, 190 FR 1 1 20 1-0 100.00% 20 0.00% 20 61.00% 1.3
Via SB Nation’s Bill Connelly

Across the season, this is a unit that’s been tough to measure. In wins over Minnesota and Bowling Green, the passing game did what it needed to and got out of the way. Against Texas, it was actually the better part of Maryland’s offense. But in losses to Michigan and Temple, the Terps were dreadful through the air.

  • Texas: 21/34, 62 percent, 264 yards, 7.8 yards per pass
  • Bowling Green: 8/16, 50 percent, 121 yards, 7.5 yards per pass
  • Temple: 8/21, 38 percent, 63 yards, 3 yards per pass
  • Minnesota: 10/14, 71 percent, 117 yards, 8.3 yards per pass
  • Michigan: 7/13, 54 percent, 73 yards, 5.6 yards per pass

Using marginal efficiency (how good you are at getting small plays that add up to long drives) Maryland’s passing offense is 128th, good for third-to-last in the whole country. In marginal explosiveness (measures how good you are at creating big plays), the unit does rank 11th. This is a pattern that shows up in the rushing game too, with a No. 88 ranking in efficiency and No. 4 in explosiveness. Big plays can bail you out of some bad situations, but there’s a limit. Maryland also ranks 104th in passing completion rate and 111th in sack rate allowed, which doesn’t help.

Pro Football Focus’s advanced stats do not reflect kindly on the Terps.

But they do reveal that the team doesn’t lack for trying in this area. Some Indiana fans gripe that QB Peyton Ramsey’s high completion percentage numbers fudge the truth a bit. It’s high because he’s only attempted short passes, they’ll say. That’s not the case with Maryland, as Kasim Hill ranks fifth in average depth of target, a measure of how far a QB’s passes are traveling through the air.

It’s not that Maryland isn’t trying anything ambitious. It’s that whatever interim head coach and offensive coordinator Matt Canada is trying through the air hasn’t been working often enough. That explosiveness ranking is good, but isn’t worth being so inefficient. And the struggles have bled all over the offense, to the point that Maryland ranks in the bottom six in the country in marginal efficiency on that side of the ball.

Abandoning the pass for long stretches the way Maryland sometimes does can mess things up too, but it’s complicated. Do you risk passing more when the run is working just so your QBs get more reps? When passing isn’t working, do you keep banging your head against the wall in the hope that it does? Questions worth thinking about, at least.

Some of these struggles are natural with youth.

Kasim Hill is still just a redshirt freshman who played about one whole combined game in 2017. Tyrrell Pigrome was forced into action as a true freshman, then played three quarters of one game last season. Neither has much experience, and expecting them to thrive in a new system right away required a best-case scenario.

Hill has started all five games, with Pigrome coming in as a change of pace for a few drives per contest. Canada confirmed Tuesday that arrangement will continue, and batted away the idea that the team will insert Pigrome as the starter over Hill.

“Kasim has developed into a good pocket passer, he’s doing well there,” Canada told reporters. “We’ve got to continue to give him opportunities and protection, call better plays, and then Pig comes in there and he’s dynamic with the football and can still throw it as well. You look at some programs that might have a wildcat package and bring a running back in—we don’t even need to do that.”

It’s going to get harder.

We’ve covered this: Rutgers is bad at football this year. Its pass defense isn’t uniformly bad, but it’s one of the worst that remains on Maryland’s schedule (64th in efficiency, 88th in explosiveness). After that, Maryland faces a run of mostly good pass defenses and also Illinois. Iowa’s defense is one of the best in the nation. A brief recess against the Illini precedes a run against Michigan State, Indiana, Ohio State and Penn State. The Terps need to get things figured out before then, or they risk more games that look like what we saw last week.