LINCOLN, Neb. — Maryland Coach DJ Durkin chucked his play sheet into the November wind during the third quarter of Saturday’s 28-7 loss to No. 18 Nebraska, unable to suppress his frustration after Cornhuskers quarterback Ryker Fyfe completed a 10-yard pass on third down and nine. The ball traveled through Maryland safety Darnell Savage Jr.’s hands and into the stomach of wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El, and a few plays later, Huskers running back Terrell Newby walked into the end zone for a third time to make it a four-touchdown game.
“I wanted to puke on the sideline,” Durkin said.
It was a stomach-churning end to a difficult week, one that included injuries and suspensions. Aside from his mangled defense, the first-year head coach had limited options at quarterback on Saturday. After determining his senior starter, Perry Hills, wasn’t able to play because of lingering shoulder injuries, Durkin made perhaps his most surprising decision of the year, starting true freshman Max Bortenschlager under center in one of college football’s most intimidating venues.
Maryland concluded what might be considered the most difficult three-game stretch in program history. After being blasted by a combined score of 121-6 by No. 3 Michigan and No. 2 Ohio State, the Terrapins arrived here vowing to at least stay competitive with one of the league’s blue bloods. There was a sliver of hope given that Nebraska starting quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. was out of uniform with a hamstring injury — but it was fleeting.
Armstrong’s backup, Fyfe, was largely accurate (23 for 37 for 220 yards and a touchdown) and confident against a depleted and inexperienced Terrapins defense, which allowed Nebraska to convert 8 of 17 third downs and 2 of 3 fourth downs. The unit also had no answer for Newby, who rushed 22 times for 98 yards and spotted Nebraska a 14-0 lead on touchdown runs of eight and five yards in the first quarter.
Durkin often touts his philosophy of “one-game seasons,” but it will never be more sincere than during this upcoming week. Maryland (5-6, 2-6 Big Ten) has lost four straight and six of its past seven, with one final chance to clinch bowl eligibility in the season finale against Rutgers next Saturday.
It can only hope that Hills is healthy. While senior quarterback Caleb Rowe was also dealing with an undisclosed injury suffered in last week’s 62-3 loss to Ohio State, Durkin had nothing to lose in giving the Indianapolis native Bortenschlager his first career start.
The experiment didn’t completely blow up in Durkin’s face — Bortenschlager finished 14 for 29 for 191 yards and a touchdown — but the running game sputtered for a fourth consecutive week (11 rushing yards) and the wounded offensive line allowed five sacks against Nebraska’s relentless pressure.
“I want to give [Bortenschlager] some credit. I thought he competed and played well. We needed some guys to help him a little more,” Durkin said. “And we struggled to run the ball.”
Maryland certainly missed the shiftiness of true freshman running back Lorenzo Harrison, the team’s second-leading rusher who is indefinitely suspended and faces assault charges for his role in a BB gun incident on campus earlier this month. But that was hardly the only issue on Saturday.
Bortenschlager’s most promising series came on the opening drive, when he directed his team to the Nebraska 28-yard line. But when the march stalled, Maryland opted for a trick play after lining up in a kicking position. The swinging gate formation — which has been used twice on successful two-point conversions this year — called for Rowe, lined up as the holder, to make a pass. He did, but it sailed out of bounds after he was crushed by Nebraska’s pressure.
That was how much of the rest of the game went. While Maryland offensive coordinator Walt Bell called plays from the sideline for the first time this season, perhaps in an attempt to help guide Bortenschlager in the first meaningful game of his career, Nebraska’s defense was simply too much for a Maryland offense that had last scored a touchdown on Oct. 29 against Indiana.
After Newby’s first two scores put Nebraska up 14-0, the Cornhuskers made it a three-score game with a 16-play, 78-yard drive at the end of the first half. It was as demoralizing a drive as Maryland’s defense has endured all season, and it ended when Fyfe hit wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp on a four-yard slant for a touchdown that beat cornerback JC Jackson. It came after the Terrapins were flagged for two pass interference calls in the end zone.
“We have to be better. We have to be more disciplined defensively,” junior linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. said.
The aforementioned drive that sent Durkin’s play card to the ground was also a long, drawn-out march that underscored Maryland’s inability to get off the field. It lasted 14 plays and went for 69 yards and was capped when Newby plunged in from one yard to make it 28-0 with 3:30 remaining in the third quarter.
Maryland’s touchdown drought ended at 11 quarters midway through the fourth when Bortenschlager hit sophomore wide receiver DJ Moore for a 92-yard catch and run for a score. It was too little, too late.
Nebraska’s sellout crowd booed as Durkin called a timeout with two seconds remaining, hoping to get one last rep for his true freshman. In a fitting conclusion, Bortenschlager was smacked on a blitz by Nebraska linebacker Marcus Newby at midfield. Durkin finally tucked away his play sheet and made his way back to the locker room, which was somber for a fourth consecutive week. Durkin stayed the course with his message before turning his attention to Rutgers.
“It truly is a one-game season. They know, if we prepare the right way and do what we have to,” he said, “then we’re going to get another game.”