5 takeaways from Maryland's first half of the 2018 season

Four months to the day that teammate Jordan McNair died after suffering heat stroke, the Maryland football team beat Rutgers, 35-7, to win its fourth game, equaling last season’s total.

Interim coach and offensive coordinator Matt Canada credited his players and fellow staff members, saying, “Our kids — the whole building — have bought into winning.”

Though a 4-2 record (2-1 in the Big Ten) at the season’s midpoint seemed plausible if the Terps could keep their quarterbacks healthy, nobody really knew how the team would react after its tragic and tumultuous summer.

McNair’s death, and third-year coach DJ Durkin being placed on administrative leave in mid-August amid allegations of a “toxic football culture,” left many uncertainties going into the season.

Yet going into Saturday’s game at Iowa, Maryland has been more than respectable with the exception of its no-show loss at home to Temple last month.

Here are 5 takeaways from the first half of the season.

1. The pass defense is much better than anyone expected.

Even in the absence of the defense-oriented Durkin and the lack of clarity about who is putting together the defensive game plans and calling signals on Saturdays, the defense has taken a huge step forward.

Maryland’s five interceptions against the Scarlet Knights were not just players being in the right place to make plays, but having the athleticism and proper technique to finish them.

With 12 interceptions, Maryland leads the Big Ten despite playing just six games. The Terps are also third in total defense (316.5 yards a game) and pass defense (190.2) and fifth in rush defense (126.3).

Senior safety Darnell Savage Jr. became the first Maryland player since Sean Davis in 2015 to get two interceptions in a game. With four interceptions this season, Savage leads the Big Ten.

“All week, we just focused on ... just trying to do our job,” Savage said. “Not trying to do too much, not trying to do somebody else’s job. Just do your job and let all the plays come to you.”

2. Maryland needs to get more consistent play from Kasim Hill to keep winning.

The redshirt freshman quarterback showed both his strengths and weaknesses against the Scarlet Knights. He looked brilliant on his three touchdown throws, but his final stat line of 8 for 17 for only 76 yards remains an issue.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Hill shouldn’t simply be a game manager. Yet that’s what Canada is often forced to do with a player who often makes the hard throws look easy and the easy throws look hard.

For Maryland to pull off a big upset with a half-season left filled with those kind of opportunities, Hill is going to have to have a game or two when he is the difference-maker. He showed at the start of his career before getting hurt last season that he can be that, but he has shown only occasional flashes of that this season.

Aware of Hill’s potential as a dynamic player, Canada has done well in deflecting any criticism off the shoulders of his young quarterback.

“We had a couple [of] plays where we could have been better and as always, I should have called better plays,” Canada said Saturday. “Ultimately everything that doesn’t work is my fault, not Kasim’s.

“Kasim’s working really hard and we’re going to keep coaching him, the wideouts, the backs and everybody. I was proud of the way we played. We got in the red zone and he made a couple of big-time plays and that was really good."

3. The kicking game has become a big plus.

It’s been awhile since Maryland had a good kicker and punter at the same time. But in junior Wade Lees and freshman Joseph Petrino, the Terps have one of the most reliable combinations in the Big Ten.

Lees, the second-oldest player in college football at age 30, has been much more of a weapon than he was his first two seasons. The rugby-style Australian punter is averaging a career-best 41.2 yards a punt, but rarely has a shank and more importantly has consistently pinned opponents deep in their own territory.

Petrino, the first true freshman to be the team’s regular kicker since former Groza Award winner Brad Craddock, came to Maryland known for his viral videos that showed him booting 50-yard kicks with both his right and left foot. Canada has used the freshman judiciously so as to help build his confidence, and Petrino has yet to miss a field goal (5 for 5) or a PAT (25 for 25).

4. Ty Johnson and Anthony McFarland Jr. could be the best running back duo in the Big Ten.

As long as Canada doesn’t distinguish either Johnson (54 carries for 435 yards and 3 touchdowns) or McFarland (45 carries for 399 yards and 2 TDs) as Maryland's featured back, neither the senior who joined some distinguished company Saturday as the school’s No. 4 rusher or the redshirt freshman who looks like a future star will be among the league’s top overall rushers.

Yet consider this: McFarland’s 8.9 yards-a-carry average leads all Big Ten running backs, and Johnson’s 8.1 average is a close second. Both have shown the capability of breaking off long touchdown runs, as Johnson did again Saturday with a 65-yarder (to go along with his career-long 81-yarder against Minnesota) and McFarland did with a 64-yarder against the Gophers.

That Maryland has very capable third- and fourth-stringers in sophomores Tayon Fleet-Davis (46 carries for 231 yards and three TDs, as well as a 20-yard receiving TD Saturday) and Javon Leake (six carries for 50 yards and two TDs) has helped overcome the loss of juniors Lorenzo Harrison III and Jake Funk because of injuries.

5. Getting to four wins might have been easier than it will be getting to six.

While Maryland had at least two quality wins in its first six games — the 34-29 upset of then-No. 23 Texas in the season opener at FedEx Field and the 42-13 victory over Minnesota in the Big Ten opener Sept. 22 — becoming bowl-eligible will be a bigger challenge.

The cumulative record of Maryland’s first six opponents is 21-20, including 11-16 for the teams the Terps have beaten. The cumulative record of their last six opponents is currently 27-12, including the 5-1 Hawkeyes in Iowa City on Saturday.

“We don’t look back, we don’t look down the road past the next one, but we’re really proud of our players,” Canada said. “The resiliency they have. You’re watching it.

“They look like they’re playing hard, I think. Anybody that says they’re not, I’d be happy to talk to you. They’re playing hard, they’re playing together. That’s what we’re most proud of.”

don.markus@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sportsprof56

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