Perry Hills began each day this week in the training room at the Maryland football facility, arriving before 7 a.m. to receive treatment on his ailing shoulders. The senior quarterback sometimes passed the time to study film of Nebraska’s defense on his iPad or phone, even if he wasn’t fully certain he would be under center when the Terrapins visit Lincoln on Saturday.
Hills is listed as a game-time decision, for the fifth time this season, against the No. 18 Cornhuskers after his condition worsened in a 62-3 loss to Ohio State last week. Hills lasted just six plays after injuring his left shoulder on a quarterback draw during the first quarter — a cruel development given that he had missed at least parts of four other games this season because of a lingering ailment in his right, throwing shoulder.
With Maryland (5-5, 2-5 Big Ten) reeling after five losses in six games and needing to win one of its two remaining games to clinch bowl eligibility, Hills’s status poses an intriguing question: Would Maryland Coach DJ Durkin consider holding Hills out against the heavily favored Huskers in order to preserve his health for a much more winnable game against conference doormat Rutgers in the season finale?
“It’s all a bunch of one-game seasons. We’ll determine what gives us the best chance to win on Saturday. If that means Perry is in the lineup, that’s what we’re going to do,” Durkin said. “If it’s not, that’s what we’re going to do. That’s solely based on what his health is. We make our decisions based on who gives us the best chance to win.”
It was expected that Durkin would view such a move as blasphemous, because Maryland still has plenty at stake at Nebraska (8-2, 5-2). After getting waxed by a combined score of 121-6 the previous two games against Ohio State and Michigan, this is at the very least a final chance for the young Terrapins to put forth a competitive showing against one of the Big Ten’s best teams.
Durkin needs Hills’s leadership more than ever, too: Aside from Maryland suffering its two worst conference losses since joining the Big Ten in 2014 , it is also dealing with off-the-field distractions after running back Lorenzo Harrison and wide receiver DJ Turner, both freshmen, were charged with assault on Wednesday for their roles in a BB gun incident on campus earlier this month.
“We have to get our team back to where we were at the beginning of the year,” senior defensive end Roman Braglio said. “We’ve hit a low spot, obviously.”
Braglio, Hills’s roommate and best friend on the team, said the senior quarterback is in the training room receiving treatment at least three times a day on his shoulders. Hills’s medical history has brought him to the room often over the past five years. He has missed time over his career for a torn anterior cruciate ligament, a hamstring pull and even mononucleosis, but the shoulder injuries have presented an entirely new set of challenges and called into question the amount of punishment Hills takes in the running game.
Hills worked during the offseason not only to strengthen his upper body but to improve his passing mechanics, an adjustment that has helped him piece together the best statistical season of his career. He ranks second in the Big Ten in passing efficiency (150.1) and has completed over 66 percent of his throws, with 10 touchdowns against just three interceptions, on 147 attempts.
His potential replacements, senior Caleb Rowe and true freshman Tyrrell Pigrome, both struggled mightily against Ohio State and between them have thrown five interceptions on 106 attempts. While Hills’s injuries have opened the door for Pigrome to gain valuable playing time, Maryland’s staff would rather not experiment with playing both Rowe and Pigrome should Hills not be able to play Saturday.
“Situationally, you could see [rotating quarterbacks] as a part of what you do, but I’ve never been a fan of that. I’ve never been a fan of those guys hearing two different voices between snaps,” Maryland offensive coordinator Walt Bell said. “I’d rather have a plan for one guy, and obviously you’re always going to have a plan B and be ready for the what-ifs.”
Like Hills, Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. has been on constant injury watch over the past several weeks. After suffering a concussion two weeks ago in a loss to Ohio State by the same, ugly 62-3 score as Maryland, the four-year starter was cleared to play just before kickoff of last week’s 24-17 win over Minnesota. Armstrong then suffered minor ankle and hamstring injuries in that game. It is uncertain whether he’ll play against the Terrapins. Armstrong’s backup, senior Ryker Fyfe, has played only a limited role in five games this season.
“He’s a good player,” Durkin said of Armstrong, who has 13 touchdown passes with eight interceptions and leads the Huskers with eight rushing touchdowns. “There are good players every week. That’s who we play. That’s who’s in our conference. He played a great game last week. Their offense functions really well with him in there.”
Maryland’s offense also functions better with Hills, as Durkin bluntly admitted following last week’s humbling loss to the Buckeyes. He’s rarely made such bold remarks this season, but he also opened up about the importance of clinching bowl eligibility over the next two weeks. With his team mired in a slump and dealing with attrition both on and off the field, Hills was racing to treatment around the clock this week, doing everything in his power to get back into the lineup.
“He’s got a good way about him. Not just in terms of throwing and running and actually playing the position,” Durkin said, “but all the little things that add up to big things.”
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