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Rutgers looks to close gap on Maryland in regular season finale

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After two straight blowout losses the Scarlet Knights hope things will be different this Saturday.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Rutgers will close out the regular season on Saturday at Maryland in what will be a program record eighth Big Ten game played in eight consecutive weeks. The grind appears to be wearing on Rutgers and head coach Greg Schiano acknowledged that possibility earlier this week, commenting “The logical question would be, ‘Do you think it had an effect on us last week?’ Maybe, I don’t know. We didn’t play well.’’

The 20-7 loss to Penn State was a reminder that the closing the gap against the most heralded and talented teams in the Big Ten will take several recruiting cycles. The more important question is how long will it take to close the gap against teams that Rutgers has a more realistic chance to pass in the near future?

Maryland had a strong debut in the Big Ten in 2014, just like Rutgers, finishing 4-4 in league play and winning 7 games that season. However, they haven’t had a winning campaign since, also like Rutgers. Although they’ve had more success than RU, winning three conference games in two different seasons and six more overall in the past five plus seasons, last year they only won one league game. Of course, it was a dominating victory over....Rutgers.

Despite a rough season, the Terps handled the Scarlet Knights easily, winning 48-7 after beating them 34-7 the year before. For Rutgers to have hopes of moving up the Big Ten ladder long term, passing Maryland is essential to doing that.

This season Maryland is 2-2 after having three games cancelled due to COVID-19 issues, including within its own program. It presents a unique challenge for a Rutgers team that hasn’t had a week off and won’t be nearly as rested.

Schiano said of his own team’s situation, “I think (playing eight straight weeks against Big Ten teams) would be substantial. Then you throw the big one, COVID-19, on top of it, and all the emotional, mental and physical wear and tear it’s had on them. I think it’s like anyone else in the country, it’s had an effect.’’ Schiano continued, “What we need to do is just lock in on what we’re doing this week. That’s what our culture is built on. ‘Chop’ is just that...focus on that spot and try to put the other stuff off to the side for now and we’ll get to it later. That’s literally what we’re trying to do here.’’

On the flip side, Maryland has played just once over the previous four weeks, a 27-11 loss to Indiana.

Regarding the challenge that comes with preparing for an opponent that has played so sparingly over the past month, Schiano said “They’ve had some time to prepare. Who knows what they’ve changed. We’ll have to adjust on the fly. That’s always the case, but might be more the case this week. We’ll be prepared for that.”

As for what he expects to face on the field, Schiano said “Defensively they are multiple, are talented and can really run. Offensively, they have great skill. They’ll operate out of three and four wide out sets. They have really good wide receivers. They have a stable of running backs but have one who averages close to seven yards per carry. He is an elite player. for sure.” The running back is Jake Funk, who has rushed for 338 yards on 7.6 yards per carry and two touchdowns. He also has 6 receptions for 35 yards and a touchdown.

Maryland is led on offense by Alabama transfer signal caller Taulia Tagovailoa, who has thrown for 1,011 yards with a 61.5% completion rate, along with seven touchdowns and seven interceptions. He threw for three touchdowns each in wins over Minnesota and Penn State, while also running for 59 yards and two touchdowns against the Gophers. Schiano said Tagovailoa, “the quarterback is dangerous both with his arm and his feet. When he went to the portal about how good is he. I can tell you he is real good. It seems to me he has very good control of their offense after not having a lot of time in the offense. It’s a challenging team.”

Of course, there are plenty of off the field challenges to deal with during a global pandemic. Schiano explained, “We are going on the road and I’m getting informed daily as there are going to be some hurdles in our travel and normal procedures due to the different policies in the state of Maryland. We will have to adapt to that. Football players and coaches are creatures of habit. So when you have to change things you have to make sure you give plenty of heads up.”

Saturday’s regular season finale will be a challenge for a Rutgers team that has exceeded expectations during extremely difficult conditions, but might be running out of gas. Do they have one more trick up their sleeve? We’ll find out Saturday, as Schiano pointed out that “the (teams) that are mentally the most tough will do the best down the stretch.’’ Hopefully, they have a few more good swings left to chop their way to victory this weekend.