Rutgers heads down the road to take on Big Ten East foe Maryland on Saturday. No way to sugarcoat the state of things at the moment as Rutgers enters this contest more than a three touchdown underdog. In an effort to find out more about this week’s opponent, I was fortunate to speak with Thomas Kendzoira, the managing editor of SB Nation’s Maryland site, Testudo Times. I spoke with Thomas about how the program has handled everything off the field the past few months, as well as the strengths of this team on the field. Let’s kick things off.
AB: Maryland football has had a tumultuous few months but the team has responded pretty well on the field this season. What were the expectations of the fan base for this season after everything that took place off the field and are they being met so far?
TK: Even before the fallout related to Jordan McNair’s death, fans were unsure what to expect. Last year’s team went 4-8 against the nation’s toughest schedule with an onslaught of quarterback injuries. This season, 6-6 seemed like a safe goal, with anything better indicating that the program was definitely heading in the right direction. After DJ Durkin was placed on administrative leave in August and it looked like there might be wholesale staff changes, a complete disaster was in play. But the Terps have avoided that, and 3-2 is kind of where we expected them to be, except not by beating Texas and losing to Temple.
I still think this is a 6-6 or 7-5 team, and the biggest X-factor going forward is redshirt freshman QB Kasim Hill. He’s had one solid game, two where he did what was needed and two where he struggled mightily (Maryland lost those games). If the Terps can improve their passing game, which is currently 123rd in the FBS in yards per contest, then their offense will be a serious threat against any defense.
AB: How would you assess the job that interim head coach Matt Canada has done this season and is he the favorite to ultimately take over the program or do you expect Maryland to look outside if/when DJ Durkin is permanently removed from his position?
Canada has been about as solid in his interim role as one could ask for. The team seems to have rallied around him, and he’s said all the right things in the press (except “stats are for losers,” which I’m sure is partly in jest but can easily be taken as arrogance). If Durkin is indeed fired, I think he’d be the most reasonable choice.
These next couple weeks will say a lot about Canada’s head coaching chops. The Terps need a bounceback win here, and a visit to Iowa can go in so many different directions. Canada’s play-calling has seen mixed results, as evidenced by the offense going stagnant in the two losses, but there’s still reason to be optimistic about him.
AB: Maryland has the fourth best rushing attack in the Big Ten, what has made them successful on the ground and what are the strengths of the three primary backs? Is Ty Johnson expected to play in this game?
TK: It’s easy to be successful when you have as many playmakers as Maryland does. Johnson, who left the Michigan game with an injury, was fully participating in practice when we saw him this week, so he should be ready to go. He’s the senior leader of this group, and his strength is his breakaway speed. His last two outings include an 81-yard run against Minnesota and a 98-yard kick return touchdown at Michigan. Anytime he touches the ball, he’s a threat to go the distance.
Redshirt freshman Anthony McFarland has burst onto the scene this season, and with Lorenzo Harrison III now out for the year, he’s looking at a much more prominent role. McFarland has a little bit of everything—speed, power and elusiveness, you name it—and can break off a big run at any time. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Tayon Fleet-Davis this year; he’s a little more of a power back and has made his mark in the red zone, scoring a team-high three touchdowns this year. Don’t be surprised if speedster Javon Leake makes a cameo, as well.
AB: How has the defense performed versus expectations for this season and who are some key players that Rutgers fans should know?
TK: I’d say the defense has been a little better than expected, which means much better than last season. Having pass rusher Jesse Aniebonam back from injury helps, as does pairing him with former top recruit Byron Cowart. Isaiah Davis and Tre Watson have stepped in very well at linebacker; Watson will miss the first half of this game due to a targeting ejection last week but might still lead the Terps in tackles. The corners are solid and safety Darnell Savage is among the best in the country.
But the guy to watch out for is Antoine Brooks. He’s a nickel corner with a safety’s skill set and a nonstop motor. He leads the team with 5.5 tackles for loss and has 1.5 sacks, an interception and three pass breakups. You’ll see him flying around anywhere and everywhere on Saturday afternoon.
AB: How has special teams play been this season and what is your confidence level with freshman kicker Joe Petrino?
Special teams have overall been a little better than last year. Joseph Petrino is certainly a big part of that. He hasn’t been tested much on field goals, but he’s 3-for-3 so far (all inside 40 yards) and 21-for-21 on extra points. (He still needs to improve his kickoffs, though, as he’s knocked several out of bounds.) Wade Lees, the 30-year-old punter, is having his best season yet, averaging nearly 42 yards per punt with nine pinning the opponent inside the 20. The return game hasn’t been superb, although Johnson’s kick return against Michigan showed what it can be with the playmakers Maryland has.
AB: How motivated do you expect Maryland to be in looking for payback after last season and what is your prediction for the game?
Payback will definitely be a part of it. It’s also Homecoming, and Maryland really needs this win to remain on track for bowl eligibility, and the Terps are trying to bounce back after last weekend’s loss. They’ve already lost once at home as a big favorite, laying a total egg against Temple. I don’t think they’ll overlook Rutgers the same way. Give me Maryland 38, Rutgers 20.
Thanks to Thomas for giving such great insight on Maryland football. You can follow him on twitter here and for complete coverage on all Maryland sports, visit Testudo Times. To read my answers to the questions that Thomas asked me about Rutgers football, click here.