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Maryland needs Bortenschlager, defense to keep making plays

There was a noticeable difference to how the Maryland football teaml played in beating Indiana last week on homecoming compared with the way the Terps had looked during the three-game losing streak that preceded it — and not just in their opponent.

Despite a shaky start, sophomore quarterback Max Bortenschlager played one of his more efficient games since assuming the starting role earlier in the season. Despite an equally nervous start, the defense made plays to help Maryland hold on for a 42-39 victory.

Now the Terps need both to repeat themselves Saturday at Rutgers.

“I think we build off the entire [Indiana] game as a whole,” Maryland coach DJ Durkin said on a teleconference Thursday with local reporters. “Obviously it’s not all perfect and all great. It never really is.

“At different points in that game, there were big plays made by individuals as well as offense or defense or special teams. … I think there are some great things throughout the entire game to point to.”

Bortenschlager and the defense should have their opportunities, playing against a team ranked last in the Big Ten and toward the bottom of the Football Bowl Subdivision in sacking quarterbacks as well as in total offense.

Senior nose tackle Kingsley Opara is putting the onus on the team’s much-maligned defense, which ranks last in the Big Ten in scoring defense (37.0 points per game) and total defense (444.6 yards a game) and next to last in third-down defense (48.9 percent conversion).

“Offensively Max has been doing a great job. DJ [Moore], of course has been doing a great job, all the backs and the linemen, we have to hold our end of the bargain,” Opara said Tuesday. “It starts with getting off the field on third down.”

Calling it the team’s “Achilles’ heel all year” and attributing every loss to Maryland’s inability to stop its opponents on third down, Opara and the Terps will be facing a team that converts just 34.2 percent of its chances.

Against the Hoosiers, Maryland was three of eight on converting third-down chances, while Indiana was 11 of 23.

Somehow, Maryland was able to win.

Bortenschlager, after a sluggish start that included throwing an interception on the team’s first possession, recovered to finish 10 of 16 overall for 171 yards and two touchdowns. The running game accounted for an additional 174 yards and three touchdowns.

“Obviously Max is improving, but the guys around him are improving as well, and we’re improving as coaches, too, in what we need to do, who we need to be based on the personnel,” Durkin said during his weekly news conference Tuesday.

“That’s your job as a coach to identify what are our strengths as a team and how to get our guys in the best position possible to have success. I think we’re evolving throughout the season. … You look back at the tape, figure out what we did well and build on that.”

After giving up two easy touchdowns in the first six minutes, the defense got better against Indiana, too.

An interception by junior safety Darnell Savage Jr. set up Maryland’s first touchdown to cut an early 14-0 deficit in half. The Hoosiers were forced to to punt on five of their last six possessions of the first half as well as a key possession late in the game as the Terps held on.

Finally, after a 51-yard punt by Wade Lees pinned Indiana at its 1-yard line with 1:45 left, the defense had two chances to get the ball back to the offense. A silly unsportsmanlike conduct penalty nearly opened the door before it was finally shut.

“It felt awesome, the way you want to end the game with your defense on the field,” defensive coordinator Andy Buh said Wednesday. “They’re excited about it. Obviously the field position was in our favor. I thought they did a good job. They stayed calm and stuck with the plan and got us off the field there at the end.”

Asked what he told senior linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. about the excessive talk that led to the penalty and helped extend the drive after the Hoosiers were facing fourth-and-4 at their own 8-yard line, Buh said the message was simple.

“The biggest point was to celebrate with your teammates, celebrate with us, that’s all you need to do,” Buh said. “That’s the mark of our program, that’s the way we operate. I think in a game like that, there’s some back and forth going on. We just need to do a good job of pulling away and just celebrating whatever win it was in the situation with our own teammates."

The Terps hope to be celebrating again after Saturday’s game at High Points Solutions Stadium, just as they did two years ago there and again last year at Maryland Stadium after an easy 31-13 win. The game last year made Maryland bowl-eligible in Durkin’s first season.

Considering that the Terps are still two wins away — with a daunting three-game stretch to finish the season — there hasn’t been much talk around the Gossett Team House of reaching a bowl for a second straight year.

“You probably can go back to the same questions [the media was] asking me at this time,” Durkin said. “Everyone, coaches, players all know what that number is, but it’s not something we talk about. Man, if we talked about anything other than the task at hand and the game you’re playing, you’d be crazy as a coach. It’s all about Rutgers.”

Durkin said his players had a different air about them after breaking the three-game losing streak.

“Everything’s better after a win, man,” he said Thursday. “The weather’s better, the food’s better. Everything’s better after a win. That’s a truism in our sport.”

It could be twice as good next week.

don.markus@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sportsprof56

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