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Maryland football vs Northwestern preview: First game of 2020

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The Terps open up the 2020 season with a trip to Evanston to take on the Wildcats

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics; taken by Maddie Kyler

After 329 days without a game, Maryland football is back. The Terrapins are going wheels up to Evanston, Illinois, for their first-ever road game against the Northwestern Wildcats Saturday.

After an offseason filled with uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic, Maryland is looking forward to its 2020 slate.

“We’ve been waiting for this since last November, when we left the field of Michigan State,” sophomore defensive back Nick Cross said earlier this month. “I can’t put into words how excited myself and the entire team, this coaching staff, everyone is just to go out there and go compete.”

Maryland begins its abbreviated Big Ten season with 56 new players on its roster and many questions still to be answered, especially at the quarterback position. Head coach Mike Locksley’s squad hopes to build off a disappointing season in which it finished with just one victory in conference play and three total wins — the program’s lowest overall record since 2015.

“We talked about discipline,” senior running back Jake Funk said earlier this week. “That’s something that we build on every single scrimmage, not hurting ourselves, whether that’s in pre snap penalties or just what we call margin of error, which are like sacks, drops, interceptions, fumbles, and just playing clean football.”

The matchup with the Wildcats is just the second-all time meeting between the two teams. Northwestern came out victorious, 37-21, in a 2017 matchup in College Park.

Maryland’s season premiere is slated to begin at 7:30 p.m. ET, and it will be broadcasted on the Big Ten Network.

Northwestern Wildcats (0-0, 0-0 Big Ten)

2019 Record: (3-9, 1-8 Big Ten)

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald is just one win away from the 100th of his career as he enters his 15th season, all of which have been at Northwestern, making him the winningest coach ever at the school. Fitzgerald also has nine bowl appearances and the 2018 Big Ten Coach of the Year award to his name.

The Wildcat coach has a long history with Locksley, as he worked as a graduate assistant at Maryland in 1998 alongside him, when the second-year head coach was the Terps’ running backs coach and recruiting coordinator.

“Knowing his track record and his background, you see his personality come out with with his team and how they play. And they’re a disciplined bunch, they have an experienced group of players,” Locksley said. “I know last year, they probably aren’t as happy with how things played out. But what you’ve seen over the consistency of Fitz’s tenure is that they always seem to bounce back.”

Players to know

Peyton Ramsey, graduate-transfer quarterback, 6’2, 220 lbs., No. 12 In three years at Indiana, Ramsey threw for 6,581 yards and and 32 touchdowns, with 23 interceptions. The graduate student started seven games in his last season for the Hoosiers following the injury of starter Michael Penix Jr., after serving as the No. 1 guy in all 12 contest his sophomore season.

Ramsey had a 2-1 record against the Terrapins while at Indiana, winning in each of the last two contests. In 2019, he totaled 193 yards in the air and a touchdown against Maryland.

Paddy Fisher, senior linebacker, 6’4, 240 lbs., No. 42 The captain of Northwestern’s strong defensive unit earned preseason All-American Preseason honors as the nation’s active leader in forced fumbles (10) and third-ranked player in career tackles with 318.

Fisher finished with 89 tackles in 2019 after surpassing 100 in each of his first two seasons in the purple and white, including a four-tackle game against the Terrapins in 2017.

Greg Newsome II, junior defensive back, 6’1, 190 lbs., No. 2 The IMG Academy product returns as one of Northwestern’s premiere defensive backs from a season ago. Newsome II had an impressive sophomore campaign, tallying 36 tackles and 11 pass breakups, good for second in the Big Ten, in his nine appearances.

With Maryland’s flashy wide receiver core, look for the Chicago native to be in a competitive matchup Saturday.

Personnel Updates

The following players have opted out for the Wildcats this season:

  • OL Rashawn Slater — 2020 NFL Draft first round prospect
  • Safety Travis Whillock — Had 78 tackles, three tackles for loss and two fumble recoveries last season
  • Defensive lineman Sandup Miller — 35 career starts; 29 tackles, 2.5 for loss, last season
  • Tight end Jason Whittaker — Appeared in two games in 2019
  • Quarterback Aidan Smith — Was low on depth chart

Strength

Defense. The linebacker core of Fisher, Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin, who are in their third consecutive season playing together, lead a strong Wildcat defense that ranked 25th in the nation last season for total defense. Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who is in his 13th season at Northwestern, has nine starters returning in a senior-led unit.

Weakness

Passing offense. Northwestern’s leading receiver from 2019, Riley Lees, finished with just 430 yards on 51 receptions — 34 more than the next player. The Wildcats also enter the season without two of their best offensive linemen from a season ago, projected first-round NFL prospect Rashawn Slater, leaving some big holes in the pass protection game for the newcomer Ramsey.

Three things to watch

1. Who will start behind center for the Terps? After 2019 starter Josh Jackson opted-out of the season in August, the quarterback job became a battle between redshirt freshman Lance LeGendre and sophomore Taulia Tagovailoa. LeGendre got limited work behind Jackson last year, while Tagovailoa threw just 12 passes at Alabama as a freshman in 2019 before transferring to College Park and becoming immediately eligible for this fall.

“They’re gonna work hard day in and day out, regardless of who the number one is, whenever that time comes,” redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jeshaun Jones said earlier this month. “They both throw the ball great, they both can run, and I feel like that’s that’s what’s needed, that’ll fit this team on offense.”

2. How will Maryland’s offense shift without its top two running backs from 2019? Both Anthony McFarland Jr. and Javon Leake left for the NFL this offseason after leading a run-heavy Maryland offense for the last few years. Senior Jake Funk was named the team’s starting back after suffering two torn ACLs in each of the last two seasons, leading the trio of senior Tayon Fleet-Davis and freshmen Isaiah Jacobs and Peny Boone.

Funk averaged 10.2 yards per carry through three games in 2019, and he’ll look to prove himself as Maryland’s most reliable option at the position.

“He is that lead running back and very capable,” Locksley said. “He’s a three down guy. He’s got smart and protection runs good routes can get as tough short yardage as a nose for the end zone. So there’s no doubt that he’s one of our primary guys.”

3. What will Northwestern’s offense look like? After 12-year offensive coordinator Mick McCall was relieved of his duties after a disappointing season last fall, the Wildcats may have some chemistry issues to start the year. Ramsey is another new piece to the Northwestern offense, but his previous success in the Big Ten is a promising showing of what he can bring to first-year coordinator Mike Bajakian in Evanston.

Locksley said the team studied tape of Bajakian’s offenses at his previous coaching spots, including as coordinator for Boston College last season, as quarterbacks coach for the Tampa Buccaneers from 2015-18 —much of which overlapped with Terps’ defensive coordinator Jon Hoke — and as offensive coordinator at Tennessee from 2013-14. He also noted that what the Widcats have done in the past very much aligns with Bajakian’s style.

“Definitely quite a challenge with the new coordinator,” Locksley said earlier this week. “I anticipate us having to do a great job early in the game of charting and making sure we’re evaluating how they want to attack us, and then get into the chess match of making the adjustments we need to make.”

Predictions

Vegas: Northwestern -11, O/U 54 12
ESPN FPI: Maryland 13.7% chance to win

Me: Northwestern 31, Maryland 17