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Texas-Maryland looks like a trap game for the Longhorns

Tom Herman’s team can’t take the opening opponent lightly.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Texas John Gutierrez-USA TODAY Sports

For the Texas Longhorns to reach even modest goals this season, one thing seems clear — beating the Maryland Terrapins in the season opener on September 1 at FedEx Field is a virtual necessity.

On paper, the match up looks highly favorable to the visiting team. Oddsharks, for instance, has the Horns as a 10.5-point favorite while predicting a 31.6-12.0 final score. In other words, the spread is wide and Texas is expected to cover it.

So what’s the problem?

The season opener bears many hallmarks of a trap game. Texas has a chance to enter the game as a ranked opponent against an unranked opponent. Following an inconsistent season, the Longhorns haven’t done much to earn the status of heavy favorite. FedEx Field, which seats 82,000, isn’t likely to be an overly hostile environment, but since the game kicks off at 12 p.m. Eastern, the early start time and lack of buzz in the stadium could contribute to a lack of intensity by the Longhorns.

Another common attribute of trap games is one team looking ahead to another opponent. While Texas won’t play USC in Austin until the season’s third week, head coach Tom Herman’s team knows that will be a primetime showdown that will draw national interest.

And there’s also the painful reality that Maryland came in to Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium last season and pulled off a surprising 51-41 victory that put a dark pall over the start of Herman’s tenure.

What happened in the following weeks helps explain why Maryland is a much more dangerous team than even advanced analytics can predict. Starting quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome went down with an ACL injury during the game last season and back up Kasim Hill did so several weeks later after helping the Terrapins hold off the Longhorns late in Austin. Star outside linebacker Jesse Aniebonam suffered a broken ankle against Texas. Numerous other injuries followed.

As a result, Maryland limped to a 4-8 finish and a No. 114 S&P ranking that belies just how well the Terrapins played when healthy against the Longhorns.

Pigrome and Hill are now projected to be healthy, as is Aniebonam.

Known as more of a running quarterback, Pigrome also hurt the Longhorns through the air, as did Hill in his relief effort. In throwing two touchdowns and completing 9-of-12 passes, Pigrome averaged 14.5 yards per attempt as he torched the Texas secondary.

Combined with the running backs, the quarterbacks helped Maryland run for 263 yards on 6.1 yards per carry. Star running back Ty Johnson, who returns this season, gashed Todd Orlando’s defense for 132 yards on 11 yards per carry.

So stopping the run will be a major challenge for the Longhorns, especially after losing nose tackle Poona Ford in the middle and Malik Jefferson at the second level. New offensive coordinator Matt Canada will only make that challenge more significant.

Transfers will also combine with the remarkable amount of talent already on the Maryland roster. The top transfer to watch will be defensive end Byron Cowart, a former five-star prospect and the nation’s No. 3 prospect when he signed with Auburn as a member of the 2015 recruiting class. Former Utah State wide receiver Rayshad Lewis will try to replace wide receiver DJ Moore, while Florida State cornerback transfer Marcus Lewis will help the secondary.

To avoid another upset, Texas will have to limit big plays by Maryland on defense and special teams, something it didn’t do in 2017 — the Terrapins had two passes of 46 yards, a run of 50 yards, and kickoff returns that went for 34 and 62 yards.

Meanwhile, the offense will have to avoid turnovers after giving away a fumble and an interception last season. The Longhorns also struggled to pick up key conversions. On third down, Texas managed to convert at a rate of 50 percent, but attempted four fourth-down conversions and were unable to gain first downs on any of them.

In the running game, the Horns were ineffective, gaining only 3.2 yards per carry and largely abandoning any efforts on the ground after falling behind early. If Herb Hand can’t get more out of his line and Stan Drayton can’t get more out of his running backs, Texas could once again struggle in this game.

Talent added during the offseason and a greater familiarity with the offensive and defensive schemes should benefit the Longhorns this season, but the Terrapins are once again talented enough to upset Texas if Herman’s team isn’t ready to play.