An argument can easily be made that the Maryland football team’s two most important offensive players are senior running back Ty Johnson and redshirt freshman quarterback Kasim Hill.
Johnson recently became the fourth player in school history to go over 4,000 career all-purpose yards and moved up to fourth in school history in rushing yardage.
After suffering a season-ending knee injury three games into his freshman season, Hill has shown flashes of becoming an elite college quarterback in wins over then-No. 23 Texas, Minnesota and Rutgers.
What happened to them Saturday — as well as the rest of the Terps in a 23-0 road loss to then-No. 19 Iowa — made it easier for Maryland’s opponent this week to figure out a defensive plan.
“It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. You have to be able to go in and stop the run and make a team one-dimensional,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said on Tuesday’s Big Ten coaches’ teleconference. “That’s our plan going in. Maryland has a commitment to the run. That goes without saying a little bit. We’ll have to be able to do that. It’s one thing said; it’s another thing doing it.”
Given that the Terps (4-3, 2-2 Big Ten) rank near the bottom of Football Bowl Subdivision in passing — only Georgia Tech, Army West Point, Navy and Georgia Southern are below Maryland — Canada’s offense is one-dimensional.
Against the Hawkeyes, who came into Kinnick Stadium ranked No. 3 in the country in run defense, the Terps’ offense was nearly nonexistent and finished with a season-low 115 yards.
Iowa had help in taking Johnson out of the game. After dropping a short pass on Maryland’s opening drive, Johnson didn’t touch the ball again on offense until the second half.
Johnson finished with 15 yards on just four carries, while catching two passes for 2 yards. To make matters worse, Hill completed just six passes in 15 attempts for 47 yards and an interception.
It was the fourth time this season that Johnson finished with fewer than 30 yards, to go with three games of over 120 yards. It was the third straight game, and fourth overall, that Hill threw for fewer than 100 yards.
While the Terps typically have other running backs to offset a slow day for Johnson, they don’t have nearly the depth behind Hill. It continues to be a dilemma for interim head coach and offensive coordinator Matt Canada.
Asked on Tuesday’s Big Ten coaches’ teleconference if the play of his quarterbacks remains the key for Maryland to get to six wins and become bowl eligible, Canada hedged.
Rather than put the onus solely on Hill and his backup, redshirt sophomore Tyrrell Pigrome, Canada said Maryland’s first shutout loss in three years was a team effort.
“It’s a combination of everything,” Canada said. “When you have so few plays — and out of those plays, how many of them are third-down situations? — it puts a lot on the quarterback. Some of it is unfair.
“It’s a product of having a bad snap on the first drive and a false start on the second drive, and on and on and on of things we mentioned. You have to execute better at every position.”
Still, Canada acknowledged that for the Terps to beat the Fighting Illini (3-4, 1-3) in the teams’ first-ever meeting Saturday at Maryland Stadium — and to have a chance to win in any of their remaining five games — the quarterback play has to improve.
“Certainly the quarterback plays a big deal on the predictability of your offense,” Canada said. “You get things moving, you get into a rhythm. I’ve got to do a better job of trying to get us into that rhythm.”
During a news conference earlier Tuesday, Canada was asked if the number of plays Maryland ran — only 39 the entire game, including just five in the first quarter — had something to do with Johnson’s limited role.
“I would say that the number of plays is exactly right,” Canada said. “I’m sure you saw the third play of the game, we threw him a pass in the flat that we didn’t execute right.
“That would have been a touch, but we didn’t catch it or throw it well enough. Our offense, we're trying to do things. If you only have whatever plays we had in the first quarter [five] … how many of those were third down and if they’re third-and-long, we’re probably not going to run it up the middle. … Ty’s a great player. So’s [Anthony McFarland Jr.], so’s [Tayon Fleet-Davis].”
It’s much simpler than that, Canada said.
“We had a bad game,” said Canada, whose offense had been shut out only once before in his career — a 41-0 loss to Clemson while he was at North Carolina State in 2014. “And ultimately it’s on me. The plan didn’t work. The wind. We thought we had a good idea going in.
“We were excited to get some of our athletes out in space. And Ty being one of them. ... We didn’t play well enough. … We were trying to get him the ball on the third play of the game and get him going, and it didn’t happen.”