We finally made it. Saturday will mark the last game of the 2017 regular season for Penn State. On one hand, it’s great that these Lions are just one win away from their second straight 10-win season. On the other, it’s kind of a bummer that there’s no where to go but down. There’s virtually no way for Penn State to win this game and advance enough in the rankings to make the Playoff. Maryland just doesn’t carry that much weight this year, so the Lions will be much more impacted by a defeat than a victory.
I guess it’s better to think of this as a play-in game, then. Win, and the Lions are probably headed to a New Year’s Six bowl and all the fun that comes with that. On the other side of this hurdle, there’s a formidable opponent waiting to provide Penn State with its final test of the 2017 campaign. For Maryland, an upset would give a happy ending to a season that started with such promise only to be ruined by two quarterback injuries.
Even though the Terrapins are down to their third-string signal caller, they’re still capable of moving the ball thanks to the surrounding talent. To learn more about Maryland on both sides of the ball, we talked to Thomas Kendziora of SB Nation’s Maryland blog, Testudo Times. Thanks to Thomas for helping us out during this Thanksgiving weekend.
Black Shoe Diaries: With Tyrrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill both suffering injuries early in the season, it's been up to third-string quarterback Max Bortenschlager to shoulder the load in the passing game since late September. How much has young Bortenschlager's game developed as the campaign has worn on, and how has offensive coordinator Walt Bell had to adjust his game plans due to the quarterback shuffle?
Testudo Times: Pigrome and Hill are both strong dual-threat quarterbacks in an offensive system that is best if built around such a player. Bortenschlager is not that, so Bell and the staff had to overhaul everything when he took over. It’s been a rough transition, especially since his throwing isn’t fully developed enough to keep good defenses honest. It’s actually tough to say how much better Bortenschlager has gotten, as he’s had to go up against one stout defense after another: Ohio State one week, then Wisconsin a little later, then Michigan State in the snow last week. Redshirt sophomore walk-on transfer Ryan Brand started the Michigan game with Bortenschlager somewhat injured, and while he’s a better runner than his fellow signal-caller, he’s got his limitations as well. Maryland has dealt with plenty of adversity at this position, but it’ll make next year’s competition that much more interesting.
BSD: Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison III have split carries pretty evenly throughout the year. Can you help us understand the difference between the two backs and in which situations D.J. Durkin likes to deploy them?
TT: Johnson is the speed back. If he gets past a defender, he won’t get caught. Because teams are stacking the box a little more this year, he hasn’t ripped off big runs with the same frequency as before, but he remains a threat to do so. Harrison doesn’t have that same top-end speed, but he’s somewhat more elusive. You’ll see these two go back and forth; there isn’t necessarily one situation either one appears in more than the other. If there’s a specialist in this backfield, it’s sophomore Jake Funk, who’s done well as a third-down and short-yardage back and has a touchdown in every Maryland victory this season. But the offense still runs through Johnson and Harrison.
BSD: Philadelphia native D.J. Moore has been a stud this year, catching nearly half of Maryland's pass completions in 2017 while scoring eight touchdowns and closing in on a 1,000-yard season. However, it seems that his production has slowed down since his incredible 210-yard game against Northwestern in mid-October. Are defenses just shading more coverage towards Moore, or is something else at work?
TT: It’s probably more of the former than anything. Wisconsin was seemingly the first team to double Moore, and others have followed suit. Senior Taivon Jacobs has put up impressive numbers of late, but opposing defenses are happy to let that happen. Maryland will need to get the ball in Moore’s hands as much as possible on Saturday, whether that’s in the passing game or on reverse hand-offs or on punt returns. He’s the best playmaker the Terps have.
BSD: Defense has not been a strength for the Terrapins, as they've allowed more than 30 points in eight of 11 games this year. However, against Michigan State, Maryland clamped down and held its opponent to just 17 points and 291 total yards. Was this just a factor of the extreme weather in East Lansing, or was something else going on?
TT: Considering that Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke was 2-of-14 for 20 yards through the air and Maryland still allowed 291 yards in the game, it’s hard to come up with a takeaway other than “it would’ve been worse in good weather.” The Terps gave up 190 rushing yards in the first half and 271 in total. That aspect of the game has been brutal lately.
BSD: It's not often that you see the same player lead his team in both tackles and sacks, but that's what Jermaine Carter Jr. is doing in his senior season. Can you tell us what makes Carter so versatile? Is he the most important member of the defense?
TT: Carter has certainly been the Terps’ best and most consistent defensive player this season, as well as the vocal leader, but the fact that his 3.5 sacks lead the team speaks to the struggle it’s been replacing Jesse Aniebonam, who had nine sacks last season and seemed a good bet to surpass that total in the preseason. Aniebonam fractured his ankle against Texas in the season opener, and Maryland simply doesn’t have anyone else who brings what he does.
On a relatively young team, Carter is the veteran leader, and the defense rallies around him. He’s matched that with a strong senior season that should help his cause for the upcoming NFL draft. He’ll likely get the loudest ovation during the senior day ceremonies, and it’ll be well deserved.
BSD: The Terrapins are three-touchdown underdogs on Saturday. How do you see the game going for Maryland?
TT: Saquon Barkley’s gonna run on them. Trace McSorley’s gonna run on them. He’s gonna find Mike Gesicki open quite a bit. Maryland will counter with … a third-string quarterback.
It’s tough to see a scenario where Maryland makes this much of a game, but if the Terps can establish their running game, get a few big plays, win the turnover battle, and don’t let Penn State run too wild, then they should give themselves a semblance of a chance down the stretch.
Thanks again to Thomas for being a good sport and answering our questions. For more on Maryland sports all year round, be sure to check out Testudo Times!