The only two Power Five football teams that have won games this season with three starting quarterbacks will meet Saturday in College Park. That is about the only trend that Maryland and Michigan share at this juncture of the season.
The Wolverines have won consecutive games and are still in the Big Ten title hunt. Even more promising, Wilton Speight, the team’s starting quarterback to begin the year, might return from injury by the end of the season.
There is no such promise for Maryland, which is coming off a demoralizing 31-24 loss to Rutgers in which former third-string quarterback Max Bortenschlager left in the second half with an upper-body injury. He was relieved by walk-on sophomore Ryan Brand, who could become the team’s fourth quarterback to start a game should Bortenschlager not be ready to go Saturday against the Wolverines.
“Probably a game-time decision,” Coach DJ Durkin said of Bortenschlager, declining to say if the sophomore had suffered a concussion. “It’s nothing we haven’t been through before.”
No team in major college football has won with four starting quarterbacks this season, though Houston and Louisiana-Lafayette have also won at least once with three. Maryland (4-5, 2-4 Big Ten) might have three chances to earn that distinction, although it remains unlikely with the final three tests coming against Michigan (7-2, 4-2), Michigan State (7-2, 5-1) and Penn State (7-2, 4-2). According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, which measures a team’s true strength on a net points scale, Maryland has less than a 22 percent chance to win any of those three games; it would need to win two of those contests to clinch bowl eligibility for a second consecutive season.
Bortenschlager has been relied upon as the starter since early September after Maryland lost Tyrrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill to season-ending knee injuries. He helped guide the Terrapins to a 31-24 victory over Minnesota in the Big Ten opener, his first start of the season. But Maryland has lost four of five games since, with Bortenschlager completing 45.6 percent of his passes for an average of 143.4 yards over that stretch and the defense allowing the most points (36.3) and yards per game (433.7) in the Big Ten.
Those struggles have come as the coaching staff has saved the redshirts of several of the team’s top freshmen from the celebrated 2017 recruiting class. That group took a hit Tuesday when Durkin announced freshman safety Markquese Bell was no longer with the program or enrolled at the university. Bell, one of the most highly touted recruits from the 2017 class, had been suspended since August and not played this season.
While Durkin is content with preserving some of his top young talent for the future, he’s scrambled to use everything at his disposal under center. Brand, a former Air Force recruit who is not on scholarship, relieved Bortenschlager admirably against Rutgers (8 for 12 passing, 68 yards) but would face one of the country’s top defenses Saturday should Bortenschlager not be ready to go. Michigan is allowing 243.8 yards per game, which ranks third nationally.
“Nobody expected all of the quarterbacks to go down like this, but at the end of the day it’s next man up, so they all have that mentality,” junior wide receiver DJ Moore said.
Maryland could also turn to redshirt junior Caleb Henderson at quarterback — the North Carolina transfer became the fourth of five Terps quarterbacks to play this season when he relieved Bortenschlager after an injury in the second half of a 62-14 loss to Ohio State in October. Coincidentally, Maryland has otherwise been relatively healthy on offense — it has used the same starters at every offensive position other than quarterback through the first nine games. That is a testament to the team’s strength and conditioning program, but it nonetheless magnifies the frustration felt over the attrition at the most important position on the field.
“To gauge frustration, that’s probably a tough one. There’s a lot of frustration I’m sure, just not on my part, our coaches, players alike. Obviously at [quarterback], if you got good play at that position, it probably hides other things. It makes up for a lot of other things,” Durkin said. “And when you don’t have someone there, then it makes everything else stand out.”
While Maryland will be able to dote on its season-opening win over Texas, the program’s first victory over a ranked team in seven years, that win has dimmed somewhat with the Longhorns sitting at 4-5 overall. It certainly didn’t translate, especially after the losses of Pigrome and Hill, to a closer margin against the Big Ten’s best in 2017. The combined margin of losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin in October was 100-27.
At the very least, the final three games will present either a final opportunity to close that gap or a final reminder that the program still has considerable ground to make up in their own division. Even with the ongoing uncertainty at quarterback, Moore was thinking about last year’s 59-3 loss to Michigan on Tuesday.
“It’s in the back of everyone’s mind,” Moore said, “that we don’t want that to happen again.”