Coming off what might be their toughest game of the season against Penn State in Evanston, Northwestern heads down to College Park to play the rebuilding Maryland Terrapins on October 14. We’ve got you covered with a full preview.

Background

Well, there isn’t much of one between these two teams. Northwestern and Maryland have never played each other in football — pretty hard to imagine, but it’s true — owing to the Terps’ relatively recent inclusion into the Big Ten and the four-year crossover opponent cycles the conference’s scheduling relies on. The 2017 season will be Maryland’s fourth in the Big Ten and, after playing Northwestern, the only conference member D.J. Durkin’s team will have yet to play is Illinois.

To say Maryland has been mediocre at best since moving over from the ACC is probably a kind assessment. Sandwiching a dreadful 2015 campaign which featured just two FBS wins (with one over 4-8 Rutgers) was a pair of right-around-.500 regular seasons culminating in disappointing bowl losses.

Maryland Offense vs. Northwestern Defense

The one common thread running through the Terps’ Big Ten struggles has been the quarterback position, which has seemingly been in a nonstop state of flux for years be it due to injury or underperformance. Perry Hills brought some stability under center in 2016, throwing for almost 1500 yards with 12 touchdowns and only 4 picks, but with him having graduated, redshirt junior Caleb Henderson is set to take over.

Henderson, a transfer from North Carolina, has only attempted one college pass though, and while he has impressed the coaching staff enough to be the de facto No. 1 signal-caller heading into August camp, he’s far from a proven commodity. Sophomore Max Bortenschlager is set to be the backup, but speedster Tyrrell Pigrome should see plenty of playing time in trick packages.

Maryland wasn’t particularly good on either side of the ball last year — the Terps were 87th nationally in offensive S&P+ and 79th in defensive S&P+ — yet the bleak peripheral stats cover up what was one of the country’s most prolific rushing offenses. Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison, who combined to run for over 1600 yards in 2016, are both back and they’ll be running behind a mostly intact offensive line that was 15th in the country in adjusted line yards (113.6) per Football Outsiders.

The Wildcats’ defensive line will have its hands full with both Johnson and Harrison, who are both explosive runners that — once they get outside of the tackle box — are hard to chase down. Northwestern’s key is to keep them inside because they’re the type of backs that need a lot to space to operate. But, if either can break a tackle up the middle, they might be on their way to the house.

Since Henderson is going to be such an inexperienced starter, the door should be open for the Wildcats to force some turnovers, especially if he’s under pressure. For such a ground-focused team in Maryland, shutting down the passing game would allow Northwestern to stack the box to contain Johnson and Harrison.

Maryland Defense vs. Northwestern Offense

On defense, the Terps lose a bunch of starters — especially in the secondary — but return their top three tacklers (Shane Cockerille, Jermaine Carter Jr. and Darnell Savage Jr.) to anchor a pretty set front seven. The problem is last year’s defense was prone to giving up big plays, which contributed to Maryland allowing almost 31 points per game.

A big contributing factor? The porous defensive line, which produced sacks but didn’t generate consistent pressure on the opposing backfield. The Terps were dead-last with just 76.4 adjusted defensive line yards. For the sake of comparison, Northwestern was 17th nationally in the same statistic.

The Wildcats don’t have too many straight-burners on offense — Solomon Vault undergoing season-ending surgery doesn’t help — but they certainly some the playmakers that can take advantage of Maryland’s regular defensive lapses. Flynn Nagel,  Northwestern’s most explosive (and healthy) returning receiver, should get a fair amount of targets, especially down the field.

Justin Jackson will of course get his usual touches out of the backfield but this could be a game to get John Moten IV involved in the offense, maybe in the passing game. Moten rushed for 340 yards as a redshirt freshman but only caught three passes. It will be interesting to see if Mick McCall looks to him to replace to the pass-catching production that Vault did in 2016.

Special Teams

The Terps’ top return man from the past few seasons, Will Likely, is gone as is Teldrick Morgan, who accounted for Maryland’s only return touchdown last year. That means wide receiver D.J. Moore — who returned 15 kicks a season ago — will likely get the majority of the reps there to start the season. Like Maryland’s other skill position players, he has a lot of speed and is a legitimate weapon.

Punt returns should be a bit more open in terms of competition, so senior receivers Jacquille Veii and Taivon Jacobs — presumably along with Moore — will be in the mix.

As for the kicking game, Adam Greene made 9-of-14 field goal attempts in his first year as the full-time starter and missed just one of his 38 extra points tries. He doesn’t have much in terms of range, though, as his longest make of 2016 was just 37 yards. He only attempted two kicks of 40 yards or longer, missing both. Due to that, the Terps went for it on 4th down much more than the average team but only had a success rate of 38 percent (11-for-29).

Wade Lees, the Terps’ starting punter, was a Australian Rules Football player in his native country and thus was 28 years old when he debuted in College Park last season. Cool backstory aside, Lees averaged just under 40 yards per punt as a freshman.

Closing Thought

All things considered, Maryland is a really young team that has a major question mark at maybe the most important position. The Terps will give up a lot of points this season but they’ll also score their fair share too, and the difference between wins and losses for D.J. Durkin’s team probably will be what it gets from a basically unknown passing game. As a result, this is a game Northwestern, on paper, should win. Still, Maryland is a team that can score quickly, especially on the ground, so this game should be far from a guaranteed victory despite the Wildcats’ advantages.

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