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After dropping 2017 opener, Texas shouldn’t overlook underdog Maryland

The Horns are aiming to avoid the last season’s fate at FedEx Field on Saturday.

Maryland v Texas Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Just one short year ago, the Maryland Terrapins marched into Darrell K Royal—Texas Memorial Stadium and stunned nearly 90,000 fans with a debut-spoiling 51-41 upset to begin the Tom Herman era in Austin.

“I told our guys to never get used to this feeling, but that if we all thought that we were going to come in here, and in nine months sprinkle some fairy dust on this team and think that we’ve arrived, then we’re wrong,” Herman infamously said after his Texas Longhorns dropped the season opener by 10 points after entering as 19-point favorites.

Much has changed throughout the 12 months since those remarks.

Maryland, after flashing plenty of promise to kickstart D.J. Durkin’s second season at the helm, amassed only three more wins as injuries piled up quite quickly, such as quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome (ACL) and defensive end Jesse Aniebonam (ankle) suffering season-ending ailments in Austin.

The offseason has proven even more damning for the program.

Weeks after being hospitalized following a May 29 workout, 19-year-old offensive lineman Jordan McNair died and reports surfaced shortly thereafter in which players cited a “toxic culture” at Maryland under Durkin, including a coaching environment based on fear and intimidation, extreme verbal abuse, and embarrassment of players, among other issues. Consequently, Durkin was placed on administrative leave on August 11, along with three other members of the athletic staff, which leaves first-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada serving as the interim head coach for the foreseeable future.

Texas, on the other hand, is enjoying some semblance of success and continuity unfamiliar on the Forty Acres in recent years.

For the first time since 2011-12, the coaching staff from the previous season is still in place, as are upwards of 20 returnees with significant starting experience, and the offseason has been spent building upon the program’s first winning season (7-6) since 2013, and first bowl victory since 2012.

NCAA Football: Texas Bowl-Texas vs Missouri Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

On the surface, the circumstances surrounding the two programs seemingly helps set the stage for Texas to begin the season on a higher note than it did in 2017, as projected by ESPN’s FPI, which gives the Longhorns an 80.3 percent chance to win. However, Herman has continued to remind his team that not only can Maryland win as an underdog, but it has.

”Maryland doesn’t think they can beat us. They know they can,” Herman said during the Big 12 teleconference on Monday.

Maryland’s roster makeup doesn’t exactly match that of your typical Big Ten bottom-feeder. In 2017, after injuries added up — especially at the quarterback position with ACL injuries limiting Pigrome and Kasim Hill to only 33 attempts — the Terps dropped seven of their last eight games to finish with a 2-7 Big Ten record, which tied for the second-worst record in the conference. On paper, though, a healthy Maryland squad is one that certainly isn’t devoid of talent.

As Texas experienced first-hand last season for the very brief moment in which both were healthy, Pigrome and Hill can each present a defense with problems. Prior to tearing his ACL, Pigrome completed 9-of-12 attempts for 175 yards and two touchdowns, complemented by another 64 yards and two scores on the ground. When Pigrome went down late in the third quarter, Hill hardly skipped a beat, completing each of his three attempts and rushing for a touchdown of his own to seal Maryland’s season-opening upset.

The latter went down weeks later with an ACL injury against UCF, which left Maryland without its top two options at quarterback throughout the 2017 season and on into the spring, so unsurprisingly, they are still jostling for the starting job just days before the season begins.

Sharing the backfield with Pigrome and/or Hill will be senior Ty Johnson, who followed a 1,000-yard 2016 campaign with 875 yards on 6.4 yards per carry last season. Against Texas, Johnson racked up 132 of those yards on only 12 carries.

Considering Maryland’s uncertain and underdeveloped quarterback competition and the Longhorns lack of linebacker depth, Johnson will likely be relied upon as the key cog in Canada’s offensive game plan, with options such as Lorenzo Harrison III, Jake Funk, and Anthony McFarland each capable as well. They’ll be running behind veteran offensive line led by senior right tackle Damian Prince.

Texas seemingly learned from last season’s early lapse, though.

After Johnson and Maryland gashed the Texas run defense to the tune of 263 yards, the Longhorns allowed an average of only 93.8 rushing yards per game throughout the next 12 appearances, and only Oklahoma State star Justice Hill (117 yards) crossed the 100-yard threshold.

Can that consistency carry over into 2018 and keep Johnson, Pigrome, and Hill in check this time around? With Malik Jefferson now off to the NFL, senior Mac linebacker Anthony Wheeler suspended for the first half due to a targeting ejection in the Texas Bowl, and true freshmen Ayodele Adeoye and DeMarvion Overshown each ruled out for the Maryland game, that task may be the tallest on the Texas plate this weekend.

Although Maryland’s ground game and Texas’ ability, or lack thereof, to slow it down will likely have a large say in the outcome, Pigrome and Hill have a bit of talent to rely upon at receiver.

Until proven otherwise, Maryland doesn’t have that safety blanket as it did in 2017 with D.J. Moore, who led the Big Ten with 80 receptions for 1,033 yards, but nevertheless, Tavion Jacobs is a proven commodity after totaling 553 yards and five touchdowns last season. Joining Jacobs and Jahvis Davenport is four-star newcomer Darryl Jones, as well as Utah State transfer Rayshad Lewis, who should also play some cornerback.

That said, despite losing NFL-caliber talents in safety DeShon Elliott and cornerback Holton Hill, the Texas secondary should enjoy a favorable matchup with Maryland’s pass-catching corps, although it will be essential for someone like true freshman Caden Sterns to avoid coverage busts during his debut after Maryland rattled off one big play after another against Texas in 2017.

Similar to Texas, Maryland’s secondary may very well be its strength.

Standout cornerbacks J.C. Jackson and Josh Woods are off to the NFL, but Darnell Savage Jr. headlines the secondary after notching eight pass breakups and three interceptions as a junior. Veteran cornerbacks Marcus Lewis, Tino Ellis, and RaVon Davis are back as well, as is nickel back Antoine Brooks Jr., who stands as Maryland’s leading returning tackler after totaling 77 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss in 2017. Joining that group will be talents such as Florida State cornerback transfer Marcus Lewis and former four-star prospect Deon Jones.

Although the two units have each been tweaked since their previous meeting, the Texas pass-catching corps earned the upper-hand in 2017, compiling 375 yards and a pair of scores, with Collin Johnson leading the way with 125 yards.

Can Johnson, now a junior, and veteran options including Devin Duvernay and Lil’Jordan Humphrey shake the term upside and translate that on-paper talent into proven productivity? Furthermore, with Sam Ehlinger cementing himself as the starting gunslinger — at least to begin the season — can Texas rely upon its quarterback to put his playmakers in a position to actually make plays and keep the offense churning?

More specific to the Texas success against Maryland may be how effectively the Horns can establish a ground game of their own, considering there should be plenty of room for opportunity there.

After arriving as a three-star prospect in 2017 and starting out as the fourth option, Daniel Young capped his debut campaign as the Longhorns starting running back and maintained that position throughout much of the offseason. He’s now joined by California grad transfer Tre Watson, who should provide plenty of versatility to the offense, as should the added dimension that is former Under Armour All-American Keaontay Ingram.

Again, on paper, this is a room featuring plenty of potential, and it will be pitted against a Maryland front six that features its fair share of talent.

Linebacker Jermaine Carter’s departure to the pros leaves the kind of void that isn’t easily filled, and of Maryland’s top four linebacker options last season, only Isaiah Davis returns. Illinois grad transfer Tre Watson is set to start alongside Davis, adding 188 tackles and 10 tackles for loss worth of experience to the mix.

There’s relatively little depth to speak of beyond that, though.

The defensive line is seemingly in a similar situation, as defensive end Jesse Aniebonam is back after breaking his ankle against Texas last season. When healthy, Aniebonam boasts all-conference talent. Former No. 3 overall prospect Byron Cowart will join him in the trenches after failing to find a role at Auburn, where he totaled just 15 tackles in three seasons. If Cowart can finally find his footing, it could loom large for a defense that forced only 16 sacks and ranked 128th in passing downs success rate in 2017.

With Cavon Walker and Chandler Burkett and their collective 72 tackles and 12.5 tackles for loss now gone, Maryland will fill the gaps in-between Aniebonam and Cowart with names such as Adam McLean, a former four-star nose tackle who began coming into his own towards the end of the season, and Mbi Tanyi, who finished with a career-high 20 tackles in 2017.

With Texas returning three veteran starters along the offensive line in Patrick Vahe (RG), Zach Shackelford (C), and Derek Kerstetter (RT), and adding an often-praised senior Elijah Rodriguez (RG) and an experienced Rice grad transfer Calvin Anderson (LT) to the mix, the Longhorns offense line should enjoy a favorable matchup in the trenches if the Herb Hand’s teaches are evident out of the gates.

On paper, Texas is undeniably the favorite. The Longhorns enter ranked No. 23 nationally and Maryland is projected to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten totem pole, and from top to bottom, Texas owns the sheer talent advantage. But as the Longhorns have learned time and time again throughout the past several years, including last season against Maryland, games aren’t played on paper and Saturday’s rematch could very well prove to be a trap game if the Horns aren’t fully prepared to play.

Prediction: Texas 27, Maryland 17