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To start DJ Durkin's second season, Maryland hopes to reverse course and become road warriors

To start DJ Durkin's second season, Maryland hopes to reverse course and become road warriors
Maryland Isaiah Davis stands beside coach D.J. Durkin during team football practice drills. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

A little more than eight months after playing Boston College at a mostly empty NFL stadium in an all-but-ignored bowl game, Maryland will begin its second season under season under DJ Durkin in a far different setting with much more at stake.

When the Terps play No. 23 Texas Saturday in Austin, a stadium renamed in honor of legendary Longhorns coach Darrell Royal should be packed. The crowd should approach capacity of just over 100,000 for new coach Tom Herman's debut.

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Despite Maryland being nearly three-touchdown underdogs, Durkin said this is a much different team than the one that was dismantled by its three ranked opponents late last season — losing in successive weeks at No. 2 Michigan (59-3), to No. 6 Ohio State (62-3) at home and at No. 19 Nebraska (28-7).

"I know a lot more about these guys and they know a lot more about me and the coaching staff," Durkin said in a teleconference on Thursday. "There's definitely more confidence and comfort there. We're a much improved team. I really like where we're at. Obviously starting on the road is a big test."

Said junior wide receiver D.J. Moore, "The confidence comes from knowing the system as a whole. Last year we were just learning it and trying to build on it. Now everyone's solidified what they're doing on their respective side of the ball."

Not that Durkin knows exactly how his Terps, with sophomore quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome making just his second collegiate start, will handle similar to what they faced a year ago on the road at Penn State, Michigan and Nebraska.

"I don't know if I've ever been part of a team where you know exactly what you're going to get in Game 1, as well as being on the road, there's always some uncertainty there," Durkin said. "That's just part of the fun of it. Our guys have prepared really, really well. I'm looking forward to seeing them play."

Said senior defensive end Chandler Burkett, "You always want to compete against anybody, [especially] if it's a big-time program, which is what we want to be. We have to be able to compete against programs like that."

Junior running back Ty Johnson could sense a different tone going into training camp a month ago and a different air around the team going into the season than the one that finished Durkin's first season with a 6-7 record after a 36-30 loss to Boston College in the Quick Lane Bowl at Detroit's Ford Field.

"If you came and watched our practice compared to last year it's like night and day," Johnson said Tuesday in College Park. "We have a team that's ready to play, everyone's excited for it. Coach Durkin has done an amazing job in getting us to adapt to our environment. You can see it how multiple members of the team just carry themselves and practice."

Asked whether the Terps will carry a collective chip on their shoulder pads when they take the field at Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium Saturday, Johnson said, "When people doubt you, it kind of gives you that edge and you want to prove people wrong."

That might not be any more evident than in Pigrome, who was named the starter Monday after beating out freshman Kasim Hill. Pigrome hopes to build on what he did last season on the road, including a game-winning touchdown in double overtime at Central Florida and playing the majority of the game at Penn State.

"We all know it's going to be a big crowd, but I'd say at the end of the day, the crowd has never been a big factor to me," Pigrome said on a teleconference with reporters Wednesday. "The game speed was a factor to me, really. That's slowed down. If everything's just goes good for me, I'll be all right."

Not only will Maryland be opening a season on the road against a ranked opponent for the first time since losing 52-13 at No. 12 Cal in 2009, but the Terps will be looking to beat a Top 25 team away from College Park for the first time since a 20-17 victory over No. 20 Clemson in Death Valley in 2008.

Maryland has lost 12 straight on the road against ranked teams, including two last season. The Terps haven't beaten a Top 25 team — home or away — in their last 15 attempts, since a 38-31 win over No. 21 North Carolina State in 2010. But that seems like ancient history, as does Texas being a national power.

Nearly as important to note is the fact that despite their national ranking, the Longhorns are coming off 5-7 season that led to the firing of Charlie Strong after three straight losing records.

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Even Herman, who led Houston to a 22-4 record in two seasons, admits it's a little unusual for a team coming off a losing year to be ranked.

"I don't know why we're ranked in the Top 25, I hope it's not because of me," Herman said on the Big 12 coaches' teleconference Monday. "I think it's more of [because] we're Texas, we're a national brand, the previous staff did a good job of recruiting here.

"We've got to develop those guys and we've got a reputation for doing that. We are a 5-7 team, we are a 16-21 program the last three years. That won't change until we step on the field and do something about it."

The Terps had nearly the same record (16-22) over the past three years. After playing 16 freshmen a year ago, including several who made starts, Maryland returns a deeper, more experienced and certainly more athletic team than it had in Durkin's first year, especially on defense.

"We're miles ahead of where we were a year ago," defensive coordinator Andy Buh said Wednesday. "A lot of that has to do with the experience we gained a year ago, and a lot of that has to do with this past offseason. We've seen jumps and growth in all areas from every guy on our roster."

Said Johnson, "I feel people, media, doubts us, because the schedule looks pretty hard and everything. But they don't know the time and work that's been put in this off-season and just this preseason camp by the guys on this team. People are entitled to their opinions, but we have a team that's ready to play and people are going to see it this season."

MARYLAND (0-0) @ NO. 23 TEXAS (0-0)

When: Today, noon

Where: Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, Austin

Radio: 105.7 FM, 980 AM. Also available on Sirius (132) and XM (199)

TV: Fox Sports 1

Series: Texas leads, 3-0

What's at stake: A victory would be Maryland's first over a ranked team since beating North Carolina State in what turned out to be Ralph Friedgen's last home game in 2010. Given the daunting schedule that looms in the Big Ten, it would go a long way in reaching the six-win plateau to become bowl eligible again under coach DJ Durkin.

Key matchup: Maryland's offensive line gave up 49 sacks last season — second worst in the FBS — and will be facing a defense that had 35 sacks, fifth most in the nation. If a line that helped the Terps finish fourth in rushing in the Big Ten last season can protect sophomore quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome and open holes for Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison III, Maryland will score points.

Player to watch: As dynamic a backfield as Johnson and Harrison were a year ago, all eyes will be on Pigrome. As a freshman, Pigrome was at times spectacular (rushing 24 yards for a game-winning touchdown on his first snap in double-overtime at Central Florida), but was more often sporadic, especially passing (including two interceptions, with one returned 82 yards for a touchdown in his start against Minnesota).

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