A Maryland football season that began with an emotional victory honoring the memory of offensive lineman Jordan McNair and has had its share of ups and downs on the field — including last week’s 23-0 loss at then-No. 19 Iowa — will face another hurdle Saturday.
Not only will the Terps have to rebound after one of their most lackluster offensive performances in recent memory, but they will have to do it with the turmoil that has enveloped the entire university with the release of the report from a commission looking into allegations of a toxic football culture at the school.
Interim coach Matt Canada had tried his best to deflect the criticism of his team’s offensive struggles on him for much of the season. But last week he took a different tact in at least holding his players accountable as well. Now he has to try to shield his team from the potential distraction of third-year coach DJ Durkin’s fate being decided.
Here are five things to look for in Maryland’s home game against Illinois:
1. Can the Terps stay focused enough to beat a 17½-point underdog?
Maryland has had mixed results as a double-digit favorite this season, losing its home opener last month to Temple and then winning easily two weeks ago against Rutgers at home. The Terps also throttled Minnesota as a slight favorite Sept. 22 at home.
The lessons learned from the Temple game were certainly on display against the Scarlet Knights, who lost, 38-17, at home to the Fighting Illini on Oct. 6. But there were signs last week in Iowa City that Maryland is struggling to keep its blinders on.
While last week's performance, especially on offense, was largely because of both the Hawkeyes’ physicality and the windy conditions at Kinnick Stadium, the Terps will need to be sharp in order to avoid a deflating loss to Illinois.
2. The offense in general — and Kasim Hill in particular — has a chance to get well in a hurry.
As much as the Fighting Illini have done well creating turnovers — they’re tied with Maryland atop the Big Ten in turnovers per game (2.14), and are tied with the Terps and Fresno State for most interceptions per game (1.86) in the country — Lovie Smith’s defense gives up a lot of big plays.
Hill has to start producing more yards for a passing offense ranked near the bottom of Football Bowl Subdivision — and Illinois could be the perfect foil. Illinois ranks last in the Big Ten and as close to the bottom in overall defense (510.4 yards allowed per game) nationally as the Terps are in passing offense (125th out of 129 teams).
It will be interesting to see how Canada attacks this week, Last week he tried to get his playmakers in space, and if not for some dropped passes, more silly penalties and a bad snap on Maryland’s first possession, it might have worked.
3. Whether linebacker Tre Watson gets too pumped to face his former teammates.
It’s always interesting to see how a player performs against his former team, whether it’s in the NFL or college. For that reason, a lot of eyes will be focused on Watson, who played his first three seasons at Illinois.
Watson, a graduate transfer, has been one of the biggest bright spots this season for the Terps, and comes in leading the Big Ten in tackles (75) and tied with teammate Darnell Savage Jr. for second nationally with four interceptions.
Watson is an emotional player and facing a former coach who didn’t exactly put Watson in the same position as Maryland has should only put an extra few gallons in his tank.
4. Whether the Terps can get off the field on third — and fourth — down.
Though much of the blame for last week’s loss fell on the offense, the defense gave up a few critical game-changing plays as well. Limiting an offense that has a big-time running back in Reggie Corbin will be a key.
A.J. Bush Jr. is the type quarterback that has done damage to the Terps the past two-plus seasons. The senior is a lot more mobile than Iowa’s Nate Stanley, who hurt Maryland on one huge third-down scramble.
Putting pressure on Bush, as Wisconsin and Purdue have done the past two weeks, will be important. Since the season opener, when the Terps finally got to Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger to produce some late turnovers, Maryland has struggled against mobile quarterbacks.
5. Getting closer to bowl eligibility could be a distraction, too.
Canada declined to discuss whether returning to a bowl game after missing one last season is something his players are thinking about. As much as Canada would like to think it’s something his players would ignore, he knows it’s not.
It’s also something the 46-year-old Canada, who has performed admirably in his role as interim coach, has to be thinking about in terms of either getting serious consideration for a permanent job should Durkin be fired or resign, or as a showcase for another school.
Perennial bowl teams might be used to the pressure that comes with getting closer to the promised land, but some of Maryland’s players have only been to one — barely getting there two years ago with a 6-6 record — and many have yet to enjoy that.