Rutgers and Maryland won’t challenge for the Big Ten East Division crown this season, but both programs have shown progress. They will square off Saturday in College Park, Md., in a matchup that could loom larger in future years.
Both teams are coming off tough losses in their last outings: Maryland (2-2, 2-2 Big Ten) fell 27-11 at Indiana two weeks ago and then had to sit last week when Michigan had positive COVID-19 tests. Meanwhile, Rutgers (2-5, 2-5) lost 23-7 to Penn State.
Already in the pandemic-plagued season, though, the Scarlet Knights have wins over Michigan State and Purdue while Maryland has beaten Minnesota and Penn State. Last year, Rutgers went 0-9 in the Big Ten action while Maryland was 1-8 in the conference, the lone victory a 48-7 rout over the Scarlet Knights on the road.
The Terps were explosive in that meeting, scoring five touchdowns of 23 yards or longer and three scores on three consecutive offensive plays. That Maryland offense is still a concern, according to Rutgers coach Greg Schiano.
“Offensively they have great skill,” Schiano said. “They’ll operate out of three- and four-wide-receiver sets and they should because they have great wide receivers. They have a stable of running backs and (Jake Funk) is averaging (7.8) yards a carry. He’s elite. The quarterback (Taulia Tagovailoa) is dangerous both with his arm and his feet.”
Wide receiver Dontay Demus did damage in that last meeting, scoring an 80-yard touchdown on a slant catch-and-run on Maryland’s first possession. He far and away leads the Terrapins this season with 23 catches for 342 yards and three touchdowns.
Tagovailoa, who completed 67 percent of his passes with 676 yards and six touchdowns in the two victories, struggled at Indiana with three interceptions. His play against an up-and-down Rutgers defense will be key.
That defense is improved, though certainly still not overwhelming. Scarlet Knights linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi leads the Big Ten with an average of 13.6 tackles per game, and he is part of a very good crew at that position. Fatukasi, who also has 10 tackles for loss, is having an all-conference kind of season.
On offense, veteran Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral has completed 63.1 percent of his passes and has thrown nine touchdown tosses but has been intercepted eight times. Running back Isaih Pacheco averages 4.3 yards per carry, but overall Rutgers is averaging just 3.4 yards per rush as a team. Still, second-year Maryland coach Mike Locksley sees vast improvement by his northern rivals.
“I think you see consistency in the (Rutgers) product (now),” Locksley said. “As a head coach I watch all three phases. You just see a bunch of players really playing hard and with great effort. They’re building and having gotten to know Greg (Schiano) … you see them taking on his personality. He approaches the game with a tough, hard-nosed, blue-collar work ethic. These guys fight for four quarters and it poses a great challenge, particularly for us still being a young team.”
Maryland and Rutgers will have at least one more game, though the Terrapins’ and Scarlet Knights’ foes are undetermined at this point. The Dec. 19 “Champions Week” format was supposed to feature East-West crossover games in the Big Ten, but COVID-19 cancellations may cause alterations to that format. Maryland, for instance, has had three of its last four scheduled games canceled.
–Field Level Media