Five things to look for in Maryland's homecoming football game Saturday vs. Rutgers

When Maryland and Rutgers joined the Big Ten in 2014, there was hope that the proximity of the two schools would help some sort of football rivalry develop.

The two teams have not been good enough or even consistent enough to get their respective fan bases fired up, though the games themselves have been for the most part quite entertaining.

It started with Rutgers overcoming a 35-10 deficit to beat Maryland, 41-38, in College Park in 2014 behind the play-calling of former Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen, who was the offensive coordinator for the Scarlet Knights that season.

It continued with the Terps winning a 46-41 shootout the following year in Piscataway, N.J., which proved to be the only victory and the last game for interim coach Mike Locksley after he took over for Randy Edsall midseason.

While Maryland’s 31-13 win in the 2016 regular-season finale was rather routine, it ended a four-game losing streak and gave the once-5-2 Terps their sixth win to make the team bowl-eligible under first-year coach DJ Durkin.

And then last year, in a game that was moved from Yankee Stadium to High Point Solutions Stadium because of a scheduling conflict, the Scarlet Knights survived, 31-24, with the help of a controversial fourth-down no-call in the end zone.

The series has made for some exciting games and endings, but except for 2014, when both teams had winning records, neither Maryland nor Rutgers have been above .500, and one or the other has finished in the division basement each year since.

Here are five things for the Terps to look at in Saturday’s game at Maryland Stadium:

1. Getting off to a fast start offensively.

In Maryland’s best two performances this season, in the opener against then-No. 23 Texas at FedEx Field and two weeks ago against Minnesota at home in the Big Ten opener, the Terps have come out strong offensively.

Maryland scored on two of its first three possessions against the Longhorns, built a 24-7 lead and hung on for an emotional 34-29 win in Matt Canada’s first game as interim coach.

A week after a frighteningly bad performance that resulted in a 21-point loss at home to then-winless Temple, the Terps did the same thing early and won easily, 42-13, against previously unbeaten Minnesota.

Now, after having its offense shut down for most of a 42-21 loss last week at Michigan against the nation’s top-ranked defense, Maryland has a chance to recover quickly against the Big Ten’s worst defense.

2. How patient Canada is with his quarterback rotation.

Canada said a news conference Tuesday that he plans to stick with redshirt freshman Kasim Hill as his starting quarterback, but that he expects redshirt sophomore Tyrrell Pigrome to play.

Walt Bell, who served as Maryland’s offensive coordinator the past two years before moving to Florida State, often said playing two quarterbacks was sometimes a sign that you might not have one worthy of playing all the time.

That is probably not the case with the Terps this year, but Canada has to be aware that Maryland ranks dead last in the Big Ten in passing offense and he needs to get more balanced to help his running attack.

You certainly can’t compare the Terps (or anyone else) to Alabama, but if Nick Saban can replace a quarterback like Jalen Hurts for the betterment of his team, Canada can eventually do the same with Hill.

3. If the defense wears down again.

The most noticeable thing in last week’s loss at “The Big House” was how the amount of time the defense spent on the field in the first half eventually took its toll on the Terps.

After holding its own early and then taking a 7-3 lead on Ty Johnson’s 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, Maryland went from flying around to flailing on defense.

It showed on Michigan’s two touchdown drives to end the first half, and then again early in the second half when the offense again sputtered coming out of the locker room.

It also didn’t help that graduate transfer linebacker Tre Watson, who has developed into Maryland’s emotional leader and the Big Ten’s leading tackler, was ejected for targeting in the second half.

With Watson having to sit out the first half against Rutgers, the Terps will have to get a boost from someone else. A few sustained drives from an offense not known for that would help.

4. Trying to reignite freshman wide receiver Jeshaun Jones.

Since making college football history by scoring the first three times he touched the ball against Texas, Jones has barely been a factor.

After catching a 65-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter of the opener, Jones has caught just five passes for 37 yards since. After a 28-yard jet sweep touchdown in that game, Jones has run twice for 38 yards.

As much as defenses became aware of Jones, it seems as if Canada has used others more in that role. None have produced the way Jones did in the opening game.

Canada wants as many players involved in the offense as possible, but aside from Johnson and redshirt freshman running back Anthony McFarland Jr., Jones is the only other one to be dynamic so far.

5. Will more fans come out for homecoming?

In the first two home games this season, against Temple and Minnesota, the small crowds at Maryland Stadium have not exactly given the Terps home-field advantage.

Since Rutgers doesn’t help fill up stadiums as much as Michigan State and Ohio State are expected to later in the season, it will mostly be Maryland fans again in College Park.

Given what the team has done so far in light of the tragedy and tumult it faced over the summer after the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair, the Terps are deserving of better support than they’ve received so far.

Since there will be no excuse for weather — the remnants of Hurricane Michael will have cleared out by early Saturday morning — it will be a sad scene if the Terps can’t get at least 40,000 to show up.

don.markus@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sportsprof56

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