After the team’s third cancellation of the season last weekend against Michigan, Maryland football will close out its 2020 regular season campaign against Rutgers Saturday.
The last time Maryland took the field was in Bloomington, Indiana, where the No. 12 ranked Hoosiers won in a defensive battle, 27-11. The Terps played that game after two weeks off due to COVID-19 positive test results within their own program and made the away trip without many vital players.
All but one player (Ayinde ‘Ace’ Eley) who missed the game against Indiana will be back in action to face the Scarlett Knights in the season finale. On the offensive side of the ball, running back Jake Funk, wide receivers Jeshaun Jones and Rakim Jarrett, and offensive linemen Johnny Jordan and Marcus Minor return. On defense, Tarheeb Still, Nick Cross and Fa’Najae Gotay will get back on the gridiron.
“I feel like our whole team is coming back together,” quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa said. “Hopefully we can come out on Saturday and send the seniors off the right way.”
Though playing in an abbreviated season with only five regular season games, a win against the Scarlet Knights would give the Terps their first final record above .500 since 2014, the team’s first season in the Big Ten.
“It means everything,” defensive lineman Mosiah Nasisi-Kite said. “We’re trying to get a winning record around here and change the culture around here. It means the world, especially for me, someone who’s trying to help Locks, to put this program back where it needs to be.”
The game will kick-off at noon from College Park, and will be broadcasted on Big Ten Network.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights (2-5)
2019 record: 2-10 (0-9 Big Ten)
Head coach Greg Schiano was a staple in the Scarlet Knights program for 10 years before leaving in 2012 to take a head coaching job in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for two seasons. Schiano then returned as the associate head coach and defensive coordinator at Ohio State, where the Buckeyes went 36-5 in his three years there.
The New Jersey native took home the 2006 National Coach of the Year award while at Rutgers in his first stint, and his return is a promising one for a team that has constantly found itself at the bottom of the Big Ten standings since joining the league in 2014.
“Having gone against Greg as an assistant since 2005, I have the utmost respect for how he prepares his team and the types of teams that he puts on the field,” Locksley said. “They play hard, they play tough, they’re relentless and pretty much have taken on the personality of their leader.”
Players to know
Olakunle Fatukasi, senior linebacker, 6’1, 234 lbs. No. 3 - Fatukasi has cemented himself as the best linebacker in the Big Ten this season. As the conference's leader in tackles with 92, the senior is on pace to be the only player in the Big Ten to be close to surpassing the triple digit mark. Fatukasi earned the Bednarik Award National Player of the Week and Big Ten Co--Defensive Player of the Week honors after his 10-tackle, two fumble recovery and a forced fumble performance in the team’s opener against Michigan State in late October.
Noah Vedral, senior quarterback, 6’1, 195 lbs., No. 0 - The Scarlet Knights’ play caller has played in all but one game this season under center. Vedral, who transferred from Nebraska, is a scrappy quarterback not scared to take a big hit, as he is second on the team in rushing with 253 yards. The senior is averaging just under 203 passing yards per game, but has been picked off eight times so far this season with just six touchdowns.
Bo Melton, senior wide receiver, 5’11, 190 lbs., No. 18 - Melton is by far the most productive offensive weapon for the Scarlet Knights, leading the team in reception yards by almost 200 with 512 yards. The senior is averaging 5.3 receptions per game and has reached the end zone six times, four of which came in two games. His deep threat ability at 5’11 has earned him just south of 14 yards per reception, which could be trouble for Maryland’s young secondary.
Special teams. Though ranked close to the bottom in most offensive and defensive categories, the Scarlet Knights are third in the conference in both kickoff and punt returns statistics this season. Junior Aron Cruickshank ranks second in the Big Ten in average return yards per game on kickoffs with 23.2, with one touchdown on a 100-yard return.
Offensive momentum. Rutgers is averaging 345.9 yards per game this season, which ranks 12th in the conference. The team’s leading rusher, junior Isaih Pacheco, has tallied just 425 yards and two touchdowns this season, while Vedral has turned the ball over more times than he has passed for a touchdown. The Scarlet Knights have also lost eight fumbles this season, along with just 4.7 yards per play, hindering any real movement with the ball.
Three things to watch
1. Can Maryland get things going on offense? Before the extended break between games, the Terps put up an average of 27.7 points in their first three games. Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa looked sluggish against the Hoosiers, though, and threw three interceptions. With most of the team’s weapons returning from the COVID-19 reserve and time to practice fully with Locksley present instead of virtual, Maryland will look to roll against a weak Rutgers secondary.
“I hope it works in our favor that we’ve had this extra time,” Locksley said. “The practice time has been great to have. It’s been good for us to kind of clean up some fundamental issues that we may have.”
2. Will Maryland take advantage of turnovers? The Scarlet Knights have 13 total turnovers through their first seven games this season, with Vedral holding a majority of them on his own. If Maryland’s defense shows up to play against the struggling offense that just put up seven points to a 2-5 Penn State team, Tagovailoa should be in the driver’s seat in some good field position drives.
3. Can Maryland keep the ball? Maryland has held the ball for the least amount of time out of any team in the Big Ten at just under 25 minutes per game. Part of the reason has come as result of Maryland’s seven touchdowns this season over 30 yards, giving it quick scores instead of driving down the field for a sustained time.
Other times though, like against Northwestern and Indiana, the Terps struggled to find momentum, turning the ball over and forfeiting drives without gaining a first down. The return of Funk to the team’s backfield will take some of the pressure off Tagovailoa, who struggled in his last game, and slow the game down a bit for the Terps’ offense that should be on the field more often this Saturday.
Vegas: Maryland -7, O/U 58
ESPN FPI: Maryland 54% chance to win
Me: Maryland 27, Rutgers 17