Maryland football opens its 2018 season against Texas on Saturday in a game we haven’t talked about too much recently on account of more important news surrounding the program.
Jordan McNair’s death and Maryland’s handling of it have taken precedent over football news for the past few weeks because his life is more important than a game, and we’re still waiting on a bunch of answers related to what happened.
That’s the backdrop for us to discuss what happened one year ago, and what might happen this weekend.
Maryland’s win over Texas last year was fun as hell. It’s probably the most entertaining Terps football game I’ve ever seen.
Maryland raced out to a big lead on the strength of an explosive rushing performance and an efficient passing game.
This was then-Maryland offensive coordinator Walt Bell’s offense running the way fans had always hoped. Ty Johnson averaged 11 (!!) yards per carry, and Tyrrell Pigrome showed off an improved arm to go along with the speed we glimpsed during his freshman season.
Once Texas got out of an early-game funk, Maryland was able to pour in a few more scores to keep the Horns at a distance.
Maryland was up 30-14 at halftime. Texas didn’t score a touchdown on offense until there was 7:20 left in the third quarter. It was a best-case scenario for the Terps. There was dancing.
The Longhorns came back, of course, and made it a three-point game before the Terps iced things with back-to-back rushing scores by Kasim Hill and Jake Funk. It was 51-41 when the clock hit zero, and Maryland looked like it might have something to show the rest of the Big Ten. Then ... well, you know what happened. QB injuries. 4-8. Anyway!
Maryland’s coming off a tumultuous offseason. Repeating already looked to be harder before this summer happened.
Not impossible, mind you. Just ... more difficult than beating Texas last season. Let’s go over a few reasons why.
What’s first here is obvious.
Maryland had a player die this offseason and is still in the midst of multiple investigations into the program. DJ Durkin isn’t coaching. There’s so much going on before we get to the actual football that you’re probably tempted to read past this section, but we owe it to Jordan McNair to keep mentioning him when we talk about this team.
How will this offseason affect Maryland’s on-field performance? I have no idea, and I don’t really see the point in trying to guess.
Last year’s loss to Maryland was Texas’ second-worst performance of the season.
The success Maryland saw on the ground against Texas wasn’t replicated by any other team against the Longhorns in 2017. We can attribute some of that to the Terps being surprisingly good and and the read-option with Tyrrell Pigrome and Maryland’s stable of running backs being a weapon not seen much before or after that game. But we can also attribute some of Maryland’s success to Texas not being prepared — or good.
Whether we’re talking about play-calling on offense or execution on defense, Texas was outright bad in a couple different ways in Herman’s debut. With a season of experience in Herman and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s systems, I’m willing to bet this will be a Texas team that isn’t falling over itself as much as it was in last year’s opener.
Not only that, but the Longhorns’ most glaring weakness during that game was in an area where they succeeded for the rest of the season.
Texas’ putrid performance defending the run against Maryland was largely a one-off. After Week 1, Texas’ defense was excellent at preventing opponents from getting going on the ground. The Longhorns held eight opponents to under three yards per carry in 2017 and finished 10th in defensive rushing S&P+.
Texas does lose productive defenders in defensive tackle Poona Ford, linebacker Malik Jefferson and safety DeShon Elliott, and the team only ranks 91st in returning production on that side of the ball. But there are talented players everywhere. Coaches have said their fourth-ranked 2018 recruiting class is making a big impact already. On Saturday, we’ll find out how true that is.
Teams generally blossom in Year 2 under a new coach. Hello, Tom Herman!
Research from SB Nation’s Bill Connelly shows that Year 2 is generally when teams take off under a new coach. Texas is weird, but seems destined for improvement after a 7-6 record and S&P+ ranking of 50 in Herman’s first season.
The Longhorns projects to shoot up in S&P+ this season after finishing 50th last year, even they still might not get past seven wins.
This isn’t to say Maryland doesn’t have a chance.
Returnees on the offensive line and in the backfield could make for a fun matchup vs. Texas’ defense, and Canada’s offense is intriguing. Combining that with a talented secondary and a front seven that could feature some former top recruits could help the Terps surprise some folks.
But they certainly won’t be catching Texas by surprise this time around.