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Rutgers and Maryland: Raising the Bar in 2014 Big Ten Football?

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The end of September has arrived with cooler weather across the Midwest and, more importantly, conference play. Thankfully the Big Ten left a good final impression with a 12-1 record in non-conference play during Week 4, and that could open the door to one of these conference competitors becoming a College Football Playoff competitor as the season progresses.

But non-conference play is now mostly behind us, which means it is time to turn a laser focus to these new East and West Divisions and the Big Ten Championship race.

Coming into the season, it looked as though the West Division was totally up for grabs between five teams, with Illinois and Purdue looking to improve and be competitive as well. Meanwhile, the East Division appeared to be highly stratified, with the “haves” (Michigan State and Ohio State) outpacing the “have-nots” (Rutgers, Penn State, Indiana) by a wide margin.

But after four weeks of mostly non-conference play, those preconceptions about these divisions have totally flipped.

The West Division has a clear favorite Nebraska and another top contender Wisconsin, then there appears to be a big gap to Iowa and Minnesota (and possibly Illinois), and still a further big gap to the two true dumpster fires in the conference, Purdue and Northwestern. Meanwhile, Michigan State is still the favorite in the East Division, but the other six teams have all shown strengths and weaknesses that render the division race completely unpredictable. How did this muddling of the waters in the East Division occur?

Rutgers and Maryland, that’s how.

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Jim Delany did not make fans quiver with excitement when he led the charge to announce the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights would be joining the conference a couple years ago. Indeed, both of these programs appeared totally lost at the time in football, making the move look weak outside the television markets and viewership brought in by these universities.

But four games into the first season of the new Big (14) Ten, it’s Rutgers and Maryland bringing up the collective level of play in the East Division. Add that to Michigan’s continued struggles, Ohio State’s injury/suspension concerns, and strong play at times from Penn State and Indiana, and the division looks like a total free-for-all behind the Spartans.

Maryland is not just good enough to compete, this team can win big and perhaps make one of the big New Year’s Day bowl games.

Rutgers may end up at the bottom of the division standings, but this team will fight valiantly and will likely not be the 0-8 or 1-7 doormat most suspected.

Both these teams will be tough outs, if the development during the first four weeks of the season can be believed. That should raise the level of play and competitiveness within the East Division to be even more stacked than imagined before the 2014 season began. It all starts with Rutgers and Maryland, a surprising but welcome development in the conference expansion and realignment saga.

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Rutgers has only had two losing seasons in the last decade, but one of them came last year (6-7) in Kyle Flood’s second season at the helm. That, plus the worst defensive performance in 2013 since the early Greg Schiano days had all signs pointing downward in the first Big Ten year.

However, Rutgers has taken care of the first part of the schedule better than expected, sandwiching impressive wins at Washington State and at Navy around a win over Howard and a tight loss at home against Penn State. The Scarlet Knights should likely be 4-0 after outplaying the Nittany Lions for most of that game, and their chances look good to continue rolling at home against Tulane and Michigan the next two weeks.

Take care of that business, and nobody will be able to ignore the positive impact Rutgers is having heading into the brutal final six games of the schedule. This includes four road games and two division crossover games against the best in the West, Nebraska and Wisconsin.

The key difference from 2013 appears to be much higher amounts of experience, especially on defense. In 2013 the team only had four returning starters on that side, and it definitely took a toll. This defense brought back seven starters and many important backups, and that depth helped the team survive a rocky start against WSU.

Even more impressive has been the development of this unit since the opening game, as Rutgers shut down each of Howard, Penn State, and Navy for most of the game, despite those teams presenting much different angles of offensive attack. Rutgers under Kyle Flood continues to focus on shutting down opposing running games and forcing opponents to win with their quarterbacks’ arms. Some teams just simply are not built for that (unfortunately for the Scarlet Knights, Penn State was built for that).

That defense may become even more important as the offense must now adjust to the loss of leading running back Paul James (torn ACL, out for season). Gary Nova has shown some improvement at quarterback as a senior, but he is still prone to mistakes and bad reads. Which means, as always, the Scarlet Knights will need to be a defense-first team to win games. That does work in the Big Ten though, just look at Mark Dantonio and Jim Tressel for proof.

Rutgers should remain close and competitive in many games, even if a lot of the tougher games on the back half of the schedule do not end up in the win column. That will raise the level of play of everyone in the East Division, lest they be left behind and fall into the cellar of this competitive division.

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Meanwhile, the expectations of Maryland were a bit higher coming into the season thanks to three seasons of continued improvement under Randy Edsall. Although the cupboard may have been left somewhat bare by Ralph Friedgen, Edsall has rebuilt this program with his style of recruits, and the results (especially on defense) are finally starting to show.

Much like Rutgers, Maryland brought back a ton of starters this season, including 8 on the offense and 9 on the defense. Other than the 63-0 beatdown received from Florida State, these players had been through close game situations and figured out how to win more than lose during the 2013 campaign. Accordingly, all signs pointed to continued improvement despite the small step up to the Big Ten.

The Terrapins have not disappointed so far, even though their record is not perfect. West Virginia is a tough team now that Dana Holgorsen has another good quarterback, and losing on a last-second field goal to a quality opponent like WVU is not season-breaking. The dominant win at Syracuse and the win at USF despite turning the ball over six times are the signs of a good team, finding various ways to win.

Maryland has found a nice balance on offense, throwing for 238 yards per game while running for 163 yards per game. C.J. Brown has not been forced to rely too heavily on his superstar wide receiver Stefon Diggs, although that dynamic duo will almost certainly make some big plays during conference play. The Terrapins open up Diggs and the other receiving options by running the ball tough with C.J. Brown and RB Brandon Ross. One potential risk is that C.J. Brown could be injured with the extra hits he takes in the running game, and that will be something that could derail the early success in this topsy-turvy East Division.

The Terrapins have a tough conference schedule with crossover games against Wisconsin and Iowa, but it is not quite as brutal as that final six-game stretch for Rutgers. What could be brutal for Maryland is the injury bug, which hit in a big way against Syracuse. Starting TE Andrew Isaacs, starting DE Quinton Jefferson, and backup LB Cavon Walker are all done for the season following injuries at the Carrier Dome. This has caused a shuffling of the defensive line, which could be troublesome with two solid offenses in Indiana and Ohio State coming up next on the schedule.

As long as that injury bug does not spread like wildfire or hit a couple of key roster spots, Maryland will likely be fine. Every team has to deal with some level of attrition, but there’s always seemingly one team in the Big Ten that gets really derailed by the number and/or severity of injuries each season. If that happens in College Park, then Maryland could take a quick turn with a number of losses.

Just like Rutgers, Maryland has proven that it will compete, if not win, many of the games on the Big Ten schedule. This newcomer should not be looking up at all of the old guard when the season ends, and that means a very good bowl game is likely on the table for the 2014 Terrapins.

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Just like with the previous moves to add Penn State and Nebraska to the conference, the legacy of conference realignment and Jim Delany’s role in it will not be cemented for many years. However, the starts of Maryland and Rutgers have put a relatively weak Big Ten conference on notice: the new teams have come to compete, not just get beat.

With Indiana improving as long as it can hold onto Kevin Wilson as coach and these developments at Maryland and Rutgers, the East Division could quickly become one of the best in college football. It may take a while to catch up to the SEC, but the competitiveness and balance in this division could help achieve that goal.

Which is a shock, considering what everyone seemed to think about these additions bringing down the conference football quality.

Welcome Rutgers and Maryland (and good luck). Now let’s play some Big Ten football!

Dave is a FWAA member and a Columnist focusing on Big Ten football for talking10. Before joining talking in 2014, he was a Featured Columnist for three years at Bleacher Report and previously wrote for seven years on SouthernCollegeSports.com. He was born in Hawkeye Country and went to college in Columbus, so there's plenty of B1G running through his blood. Dave is a patent and trademark attorney in his day job. If you have any questions in those areas or about his latest articles, please contact him on Twitter @BuckeyeFitzy.

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Terps Football

What does Terps victory over Texas really mean?

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The Maryland Terrapins did it again — knocking off a favored and ranked (if you want to pay attention to those things) Texas Longhorns football team. 

Much like last season, it was a fight to the very end and it was Maryland coming out on top again. The Terps survived for a 34-29 win in Landover, Md. this time around. 

But, spoiling Tom Herman’s debut last season was one thing, winning in 2018 felt totally different. 

After all, it came on the heels of one of the craziest offseasons one could imagine. There was the tragic death of a teammate following an intense workout and then the suspension and investigation in to the head coach. 

It also came as the debut of Matt Canada as a head coach at any point in his long career in college football. 

So, of course, getting this win was an emotional moment for the Terps. But, there is a large question at hand — what does this win really mean? 

Last season’s win in Austin proved to mean little more than a glimpse of what could’ve been. 

Injuries to both quarterbacks that played this Saturday crushed any momentum that was being built. So too did other injuries on both sides of the ball. 

The good news on this Saturday was that Maryland’s quarterbacks escaped this one without injury. Kasim Hill, who came on for injured Tyrell Pigrome, looked every part of the star people expected last season. 

He finished this game completing 17 of 29 passes for 222 yards and a touchdown. Meanwhile, Pigrome was 3 of 4 for 22 yards in his limited action. 

Maryland found a balanced run game too, with no one rushing for more than 31 of the 143 yards put up as a team. 

The Terps defense gave up plenty of yardage — 405 to be exact — but they also found ways to make positive contributions when it mattered most. There were the three turnovers created. There were the seven tackles for loss as well.

Maryland didn’t allow a 100-yard rusher either. 

All of those were positive developments for a defense that badly needed to prove it could contribute positively to the 2018 season. 

Kicker Joseph Petrino hit a pair of short field goals as well

Many are adding all of that up and spinning tails of Maryland’s rise. There’s no doubt that this win and the two over Texas in this series are important, but they aren’t the end all, be all that some writers are making it out to be. 

Then there is the factor that far too many of my fellow brethren in the sports writing world care about the AP Poll and Coaches Poll. Clearly Texas is not one of the 25 best teams in America and the Longhorns probably should never have been thought of that highly to begin with. 

So, what does it really mean? For me, this win is telling in that Maryland has become a program capable of playing with teams that are hanging around the fringes of quality. 

One could chalk last season up to a fluke or to Texas just getting used to Herman and his style. But this second win? It showed that Maryland isn’t afraid of the name brand in front of them — they can play with anyone on their best day. 

Ultimately, this win will be looked back on as a promising start and unless they do something with it, that’s all it will be. 

There are still 11 more games to help define the 2018 season.

How the Terps build from this start and work going forward will matter way more than what took place on the 1st of September. 

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Maryland

Terps brass own up to mistakes in Jordan McNair death

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Jordan McNair didn’t have to die. 

It has been the thought of many people, including his family for much of the summer. 

On Tuesday afternoon both University of Maryland president Wallace Loh and Director of Athletics Damon Evans made that thought their public statement.

The duo took to the podium in College Park, with the media expecting answers and progress reports on two key investigations. What they got was  refreshing honesty in a world where legalese and non-committal statements are the norm.

Loh opened up the press conference by stating bluntly that Maryland accepted full responsibility — both legal and moral —  for the death of McNair.



While the words in front of the camera were nice, Loh and Evans also noted that what they were saying publicly was no different than what they were saying to the family of Jordan McNair. 

The duo traveled to Baltimore to speak with the family on Tuesday and looked them in the eye and accepted responsibility as a university and athletic department for what happened to their son. 

Words will never bring back their son, as Loh and Evans noted. However, their honesty and accepting of responsibility in an unequivocal manner is a step in the right direction for healing for the McNair family. 

I mean, how many athletic directors and university presidents lay it out like this: 

It was the right — and hard — thing to do though. It was also the measure of the character of Loh and Evans, both of which have come under serious question in the wake of the last few days of reporting. 

It wasn’t just Loh who went with honesty as the best policy. The same went for Evans when he stepped to the podium. He got legitimately chocked up when talking about McNair’s death and the expectations that were not met by the football program in general. 

They weren’t rehearsed tears or fake emotions. It was easy to tell that Evans was deeply hurt and saddened by the pain that McNair’s family expressed while meeting in person. 

Evans also made a clear statement with the announcement that Rick Court, who was at the center of the allegations in McNair’s death and the ESPN report last week, was no longer on staff. At first it wasn’t clear that Court was gone, but Evans named him after being asked directly by a reporter who the “member of the football staff” was that had been let go.

Later it was reported that Court and the Terps came to a settlement and he resigned his position late yesterday. 

Once again, the right thing was done and it was done swiftly based off of the preliminary progress report that Loh and Evans have received. 

Maryland is also putting in place a four-person committee to investigate the claims in the ESPN article. It will be tasked with finding the truth, but also doing it in a timely manner. 

The Terps emphasis on truth over speculation from external forces is also the right thing to do — both for Durkin and most importantly for McNair’s family. 

What that truth ends up being and what happens once it is all made public, we don’t know today. The proof that the words spoken today will have lasting meaning will be in how things change around the athletic department.

But, if there can be any good in McNair’s death it will be in that this is prevented from ever happening again.

It’s the right thing to do to honor a young man who had no business dying and to help a grieving family get some measure of closure to this painful chapter in their lives. 

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Terps Football

Maryland Terrapins Football Preview: 5 Impact Players for 2018

Maryland has a lot of raw potential, but which players will have the biggest impact on success or failure in 2018?

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Who are the Maryland Terrapins under head coach D.J. Durkin? Are they the group who made a bowl appearance in his first season and were able to run over just about everyone…or are they the snake-bitten and injury-riddled crew that got pounded on in 2017?

It’s an important year for the Terps, and with back-to-back Top 30 recruiting classes, a lot is expected of this program going forward. Can promise turn in to production? That may depend on what happens with a few players.

Who are those players that will likely have the biggest impact on the 2018 Terps season? Let’s take a look at the names you should be paying attention to in 2018.

Jesse Aniebonam, DE

Aniebonam went in to last season hoping to build off a 2016 that saw him 46 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and 9 sacks. Instead, he played just part of the season opener with Texas and was never seen again on the year thanks to an ankle injury. Without him, the Terps managed just 16 sacks on the season in 2017, good for 13th in the Big Ten.

If Maryland wants to actually get back to a bowl game in year three of the Durkin era, it needs the defense to stop giving up 30-plus points per game. Aniebonam’s return should help despite the loss of two productive linebackers behind him.

Byron Cowart, DE

If you are sensing a theme, you would be right — Maryland has to get better on the edge against teams that have killed them there the past two seasons. Cowart was once a 5-star recruit (Rivals and ESPN’s No. 1 overall recruit in the country) and a gem for the Auburn Tigers. That was 2015, and Cowart hasn’t really been the force most people believed he would be. A transfer to Maryland seems to have rejuvenated his career and he looked like a potential star throughout much of spring ball.

Pair a potential talent like Cowart with a ready-made star like Aniebonam and the Terps suddenly have one scary defensive line for opposition to deal with — something they haven’t really had in Durkin’s two years in College Park.

Kasim Hill, QB

As intriguing as Tyrrell Pigrome was in the opener last season against Texas, Hill is the better fit for new offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s philosophy. The freshman (because he will most likely get last season back) is a better mix of pass-first, run-second for Canada’s more pro-orientated philosophy.

Hill came in to the Texas game and calmly led the Terps to a massive road upset of the Longhorns in the middle of a chaotic game. We’ll see if Hill or Pigrome win the job in fall camp, but if you’re looking for a player to lead this team with the coaching staff that is now in place, Hill is the one I would look to as the better fit.

All I do know for sure is that this season has to be the one where at least one quality quarterback stays healthy…right?

Rayshad Lewis, WR

While there is a ton of potential on Maryland’s offense, it is going to be hard to make up for the loss of D.J. Moore to the NFL. Enter a veteran transfer in former Utah State wide receiver Rayshad Lewis, who came to the Terps following a breakout true freshman season with the Aggies. He had 40 catches for 476 yards with seven starts.

If he can handle the increased level of competition and size, Lewis could be exactly what the doctor ordered in helping to replace some of production lost by Moore’s departure. He won’t be the only one counted on, as Tavion Jacobs and Jahrvis Davenport are seniors, but only but Jacobs has proven himself. He’s  the only one returning to the team that had a touchdown reception (5 to be exact) in 2017 (to go along with 47 receptions).

Oh, and did we mention he is the son of future NFL Hall of Famer Ray Lewis? Ya, that should make him an intriguing figure to watch to say the least.

Tre Watson, ILB

It’s not often an impact player comes courtesy of another Big Ten program, but when the Terps lost two quality starting linebackers, Tre Watson (formerly of Illinois) became a big piece to solving the defensive woes in College Park.

Watson had over 100 tackles for the Illini in 2016 and picked up 65 tackles in nine games for Lovie Smith’s crew last season. He will have some help with rising junior Isiah Davis alongside him, but Watson has a chance to get out of a bad situation and become a star quick in the defense the Terps run.

There’s a lot of talk about talented underclassmen, but getting a true veteran leader like Watson could be a real quick difference maker for a defense in desperate need of exactly that.

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Terps Football

Maryland Terrapins Football Preview: Reasons to be optimistic in 2018

After a 4-8 season in 2017, why should you be optimistic about the 2018 Terps?

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When D.J. Durkin was hired in December of 2015 to lead this program, it was clear that there would need to be a cultural shift in the Maryland Terrapins program.

As 2018 approaches, we are also entering a pivotal season — season No. 3 — of the Durkin era.

Two seasons in and we’ve seen the potential and the need for continued roster building in big ways. Year one ended with a Bowl berth and three Big Ten wins. Year two ended with just two wins in conference and a 4-8 overall record.

It means this season will tell us which direction was real. So, given that 4-8 season in 2017, why should anyone be optimistic about the 2018 Terps season?

Let’s take a look at some of those reasons.

Durkin Has an Eye for Talent

For some schools, recruiting rankings really matter. For others, recruiting rankings don’t tell the full story. For Maryland, the truth lies somewhere in the middle and that’s not a bad thing.

In the first two complete recruiting cycles for head coach D.J. Durkin, the Terps have shown an ability to be a school that can compete for Top 25 positions. More importantly though, Durkin and his staff have shown that the hype can be backed up by play on the field.

While we only saw one full game and parts of two others from Kasim Hill, it was abundantly clear that the rankings and hype surrounding him was warranted. Same from Tyrrell Pigrorme, who was bombing Texas’ defense in Austin prior to a season-ending injury in the third quarter.

There’s also the fact that players who weren’t highly regarded when Durkin came in and are becoming stars. Seniors like Ty Johnson, Jesse Aniebonam and Darnell Savage weren’t that known coming in to their recruiting class, but have become very productive players.

With a two-deep that is full of seniors, it is clear that Durkin understands the talents he has and knows how to maximize what is in front of him. Three years of work behind the scenes could well pay off for those seniors.

Defensive Line Talent

One of the most puzzling stories of the Durkin era has been the inability of the defense to become a quality unit. That could be on the way to changing in a big way in 2018, and it couldn’t come at a more opportune time.

We’re optimistic about the defense this season for one reason — the defensive line. Durkin has made it a great priority to get bigger, faster and meaner up front in his first three recruiting classes. This season he has three really talented players in the front four.

Adam McClean will take his freshman experience and be a good player up the middle, while 2016 star Jesse Aniebonam is back after missing almost the entire 2017 season and they add in 2015’s No. 1 overall recruit (according to ESPN) as a transfer — Byron Cowart.

Having three players that opposing teams need to pay attention to, not just keying on one is going to be huge. It also should be a huge help to an intriguing linebacker group that includes productive Illinois transfer Tre Watson and hybrid nickleback Antoine Brooks.

Running Game Depth

When the Terps were at their best in 2016, they were burning teams on the ground offensively. Look for a return to that formula in 2018 in part due to D.J. Moore’s graduation at wide receiver and in part because running back may be the deepest and most dangerous position on Maryland’s roster.

First, former 1,000-yard rusher Ty Johnson returns for his senior season after rushing for 875 yards last season despite teams keying on him after both quality quarterbacks went down. Then there’s a bit of thunder with Lorenzo Harrison in the mix, as he rushed for 622 yards and averaged 4.5 yards per carry last season.

Now, add in one of the top 2017 recruits, Anthony McFarland, and you have a three-headed monster that East division teams are going to have to worry about. Both Johnson and McFarland are capable of busting the big run, but do so in different ways. Johnson is more of the every-down type of back, while McFarland is an absolute speed nightmare for opposing defenses.

That three-headed monster is one way for the Terps to keep pressure on opposing defenses.

With Matt Canada at offensive coordinator, a good run game is Maryland’s best friend. The odds of it happening seem really good on paper.

Overall Reason to be Optimistic

As we described above, the formula to win more than you lose in the Big Ten seems to be in place for the Terps on paper. You know, play strong defense up front and be able to run the ball on offense.

If the talent can equal production on both fronts, Maryland may be in business in a way that will surprise some. You have to love the combination of skill sets at running back and you have to love the fact that Durkin hasn’t been afraid to go after talent on the defensive line.

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