On the Maryland football schedule, this week’s trip to Bowling Green appears to be nothing more than a typical early-season trap game.
The Terps are coming off a 34-29 upset of then-No. 23 Texas at FedEx Field and will be going in as 16-point favorites against a team that led Oregon 10-0 on the road before a 30-point second quarter by the Ducks led to a 58-24 defeat.
Some of Maryland’s older players have painful memories of a 48-27 loss to the Falcons three years ago in College Park, a defeat that opened the door for former coach Randy Edsall's midseason departure a month later and DJ Durkin’s arrival after the season.
“Our older players played Bowling Green a couple of years ago, I’ve played Bowling Green,” Maryland interim coach Matt Canada said. “Our older player have done a good job letting [the younger players] know it’s a pretty good football team we’re playing.
“Every game is the game, every game is the biggest game of the year and that’s how we’re approaching it. I have great respect for that program. I’ve played them multiple times and our players have played them, and the result didn’t go quite the way they wanted to.”
Yet the first road trip for the Terps this season was also supposed to be about more than the first Power 5 school to visit cozy Doyt Perry Stadium (capacity 24,000) since Bowling Green beat Indiana there in 2014.
With the hiring of Durkin, the rematch was also supposed to a homecoming for him. He had played at Bowling Green, met his wife there and started his coaching career as a graduate assistant under then-first-time head coach Urban Meyer.
But now it's Canada trying to lead the Terps to their third straight 2-0 start as Durkin, who was placed on administrative leave Aug. 11, awaits the results of external investigations into the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair and allegations of a “toxic” culture surrounding his program.
The Terps honored McNair with a moment of silence before the Texas game, took his jersey out for the opening coin toss, waved a flag with his jersey number before and after the game, and then placed a game ball in his glass-encased locker at the Gossett Team House when they returned to campus.
“Our players, how they continue to honor Jordan will be up to them,” Canada said. “I know they’re going to do those things. The flag was their idea. It was a big deal to them. Talking about Jordan is a big deal to them, remembering Jordan is a big deal to them.
“The way we honor Jordan in our locker room and around is certainly led and done by our players, and I’m very proud to be a small part of this staff and this program that our kids are doing it, what I feel, is the right way.”
While Saturday’s game isn’t expected to be accompanied with the same gestures, Canada said the emotion his players used to catapult them to the upset of the Longhorns won’t change given that they will be expected to beat Bowling Green.
“As I mentioned last week, [we’re] grieving in each way that we all have and that’s what we’re doing,” Canada said. “Sometimes that’s celebrating, right, and there was a celebration of Jordan after that game in our locker room. Sometimes it’s a different form of grief. I think our kids are doing a great job. They’re handling it as well as they could be.”
Junior safety and nickel back Antoine Brooks Jr. said in a telephone interview Wednesday that the Terps showed “a lot of mixed emotions” on the field and in their locker room after the game.
“Excitement, smiles, tears, joy,” Brooks said. “This whole season is going to be dedicated to Jordan. That’s our brother and we miss him.”
Redshirt freshman quarterback Kasim Hill said after Saturday’s game that the Terps have become a closer team as a result of their summer filled with tragedy and adversity. Brooks echoed those sentiments.
“You’ve got to go through something to get closer to people — period and point blank, ” Brooks said. “We’ve been through a lot — blood, sweat and tears.”
It will be interesting to see how the Terps in general, and a few players in particular, handle the attention they received after beating the Longhorns for a second straight year. ESPN moved Maryland, though still unranked in the national polls, up to No. 18 in its power rankings.
Wide receiver Jeshaun Jones, who scored the first three times he touched the ball in his college career, was named the National Freshman of the Week by CBS Sports. Jones and Brooks, who led the Terps with 11 tackles and secured the win with an interception, were named the Big Ten’s co-Freshman and co-Defensive Player of the Week, respectively.
Brooks said the defense in particular showed something that might not have been there his first two years. After Jones helped the Terps build an early 24-7 lead and then saw Texas score 22 straight points, the defense stiffened. And after the 90-minute weather delay, the unit helped protect a small lead by forcing three straight turnovers to close the game.
“We kind of made a good statement about our defense and how we’re going to play,” Brooks said. “Any defense preaches turnovers win games.”
Though he has only been at Maryland since January as the team’s offensive coordinator and now its interim coach, Canada has seen his defense grow up and the team become resilient both on and off the field.
“Each team is different, every season is different,” Canada said on the Big Ten coaches’ teleconference Wednesday. “I don’t think there’s any certain sign you see; you certainly hope that’s the case. Certainly you see how much the players care about each other. Obviously the good football teams that a lot of us have been around is when the players take over. Players play so hard so not to let each other down.
“I think that’s the situation when you have a football team that’s got a chance to have a good season and win football games that are close and tight. You saw a bunch of players who thought they could win, they believed in other and they were very resolute in the fact that they weren’t going to give up or going to give in and do everything they could do to win the football game.”