Maryland football is 0-9 against ranked Big Ten teams since joining the league in 2014. The total scoring margin of those games is 370-102. None of the losses was as ugly as last November’s 62-3 defeat to Ohio State in College Park, where Terrapins Coach DJ Durkin clutched the lectern in the postgame aftermath and said of his team: “There’s a ton of growth. The score of those games doesn’t equate to that, but that’s not what it’s measured by.”
Durkin has used a variety of barometers to measure progress during his young tenure in College Park — through his nationally ranked recruiting classes, through the construction of a new indoor football facility, through a 3-1 start to this year after losing his top two quarterbacks to season-ending knee injuries — but he won’t have a better gauge of where his team stands in his second season than Saturday against the 10th-ranked Buckeyes in Columbus.
The Terrapins have two road wins as double-digit underdogs — 51-41 over Texas in the season opener and 31-24 over Minnesota to kick off Big Ten play last weekend — but they have not seen a roster of this caliber. Saturday will be the first opportunity to close the gap against a Big Ten blue blood that has embarrassed the Terrapins by at least 21 points in the past three seasons.
“In terms of closing the gap,” Maryland offensive coordinator Walt Bell said, “we have to be as good as we can be on Saturday.”
Said Durkin: “There’s not any holes in the roster, and they’re very well coached.”
How will growth be measured this time around? Durkin and his assistants largely shied away from that question this week. They did not speak to their players about last year’s blowout loss — “We’re a totally different team,” Durkin said — and they played down the big picture and how a promising performance this weekend might have broader implications for the team’s psyche as it tries to make up ground in the Big Ten East.
Maryland’s players promised to not be intimidated after opening as 31-point underdogs against the Buckeyes, not after what they had accomplished through so much attrition through the first four games. Maryland was a three-touchdown underdog at then-No. 23 Texas, which marked the Terrapins’ first win over a ranked opponent in seven years. It was a two-touchdown underdog at undefeated Minnesota last weekend and managed to win behind the steady hand of former third-string quarterback Max Bortenschlager.
“Knowing that we’re the underdog, just like any other game, we’re going to take that mind-set and just going to go in there and just play our best game,” said junior wide receiver DJ Moore, who leads the Big Ten in catches (30), receiving yards (403) and receiving touchdowns (five).
While Bortenschlager’s productivity last week underscored Maryland’s improved depth and player development over the past two years, the win over the Gophers also magnified the vast improvements in team speed and along the offensive and defensive lines. Maryland outrushed Minnesota 246-80 and didn’t allow a sack; its offense ranks fourth in the Big Ten in points (38.8) and fifth in yards (407.3) per game, while the defense ranks 10th in yards allowed (379.8) and seventh in rushing yards allowed (131.8) per game.
That’s much improved from the 214.8 yards rushing Maryland allowed last season, but Ohio State’s offense is on a different level than what Maryland has played against over the first four weeks. The Buckeyes (4-1, 2-0 Big Ten) boast the top offense in the Big Ten, leading the league in both passing (326 yards per game) and rushing (238.8), though those numbers have been padded by wins over Army, UNLV and Rutgers.
“We’re optimistic and we’re pleased with the progress. But we’re also realistic,” Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer said this week. “Anybody can see that we’ve improved, but when it comes time this week, can we continue against very good competition?”
The last time Maryland played at famed Ohio Stadium was in October 2015, a 49-28 loss in the final game of Randy Edsall’s coaching tenure in College Park. Edsall was fired the next day, and the wheels to hire Durkin were set in motion later that fall.
Durkin acknowledged early in his tenure that he was attempting to rebuild a program in what many consider the best division in all of college football, a notion that was reinforced after Maryland lost by a combined margin of 159-20 to Penn State, Michigan and Ohio State last year.
Durkin did not want to talk about the quality of the division this week, but he did call Saturday’s game an “unbelievable opportunity.” The chance to close the gap against ranked teams has not been lost on Durkin. As he prepared his team for one of the most difficult schedules in the country earlier this season — after Ohio State, Maryland still has matchups with Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State — he reached out to former Terrapins coach Ralph Friedgen about reviving an old tradition in College Park. In 2005, Friedgen erected a graveyard near the team’s practice field with tombstones commemorating each of Maryland’s 10 wins over top-10 opponents since 1950. Durkin wanted Friedgen’s blessing to add headstones for each top 25 win his team earned.
It was as if Durkin almost expected to claim such wins in his second year. A headstone was added to celebrate the victory over Texas. The graveyard awaits its first victory over a ranked Big Ten team.
“All the big picture stuff of the national scene is not anything on our radar screen at all,” Durkin said. “We feel very confident and comfortable that the conference and division we play in is as good as there is.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Rutgers was a nonconference victory for Ohio State.
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