A year ago, Maryland interim coach Matt Canada’s career had seemingly taken a wrong turn. Blamed for the struggles of the LSU offense after a late-September loss to Troy, Canada was being made a scapegoat by Tigers coach Ed Orgeron.
A 24-10 loss at No. 1 Alabama left LSU’s record at 6-3 on Nov. 4 and left Canada in some sort of coaching purgatory during his first season in Baton Rouge, playing out the schedule before making another stop on his personal carousel.
Orgeron later called it “a mistake” to hire Canada, who had coached at five schools over the previous seven years.
When Canada takes the field at Maryland Stadium for a noon game Saturday against Michigan State, his future is still in question. It has really nothing to do with him as much as the turmoil surrounding the Terps (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten).
The game against the Spartans (5-3, 3-2) marks Canada’s first since DJ Durkin’s firing Wednesday.
While Canada has spent the first eight games in a similar role, along with his job as offensive coordinator, this appears to be more the official start to his audition for a more permanent position.
Here are five things to look for Saturday against Michigan State.
1. Whether the Terps were distracted by the wild turn of events this week.
Canada and the rest of the coaching staff have done a terrific job the first two months of keeping the team focused on its upcoming opponent rather than on the ongoing saga of Durkin’s job status and the tragedy of Jordan McNair’s death that still shrouds the program.
Between Durkin’s brief reinstatement to his termination, sandwiching three players reportedly walking out of his first team meeting since the regular season began and two others getting into a post-practice fight, there’s a lot to distract the Terps.
Based on how active a few of the players were on social media this week, it’s going to be interesting to see how Maryland will react. Unfortunately for the Terps, Michigan State has been better on the road (2-0) in the Big Ten than at home (1-2).
2. Whether Maryland can get its running game going against the Big Ten’s top rushing defense.
The Terps have struggled against the league’s top rushing defenses, most recently gaining just 68 yards on 23 carries in a 23-0 loss at then-No.19 Iowa on Oct. 20.
Most of the 147 yards on 37 attempts Maryland gained at Michigan came after the then-No. 15 Wolverines had taken a comfortable lead in a 42-21 victory Oct. 6.
Also part of this week’s intrigue is to see how Canada distributes the carries against Michigan State.
Senior Ty Johnson has told teammates he expects to play after sitting out the second half of last week’s 63-33 win over Illinois with a calf injury. But Canada seems be going more to redshirt freshman Anthony McFarland Jr. and sophomore Javon Leake.
Given what Leake did against the Fighting Illini, with 140 yards and three touchdowns on just five carries (to go with a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown), it wouldn’t be surprising to see Canada ride him early to see if the magic is still there.
3. If Kasim Hill remains the measuring stick for the offense — and maybe for the team.
In Maryland’s five wins this season, the redshirt freshman quarterback has completed 54 of 95 passes (56.8 percent) for 801 yards with nine touchdowns and no interceptions. In the three losses, Hill is 18-for-42 (42.9 percent) for 165 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions.
While his performances in the wins have not been staggering, he has shown flashes of becoming the elite quarterback many predicted when he was coming out of high school. Hill even looked more comfortable and confident running the ball last week against Illinois.
Considering how strong the Spartans are against the run, Hill’s passing (and the Maryland receivers making tough catches as they did last week) will be a key, especially early in the game. If the Terps can get their passing game going, it could prevent Michigan State from stacking the box.
4. Which Michigan State offense shows up at Maryland Stadium?
While the Terps have had trouble competing with the Big Ten’s elite the past three seasons, the Spartans seem to fluctuate between being one of those teams and being beatable.
It’s hard to tell which Michigan State will show up Saturday, but the Terps had the luxury of watching tape of redshirt freshman quarterback Rocky Lombardi, something Purdue didn’t have going into last week’s game in East Lansing.
Another question is the overall health of the Spartans, who are starting to get some of their receivers back, and are hoping running back L.J. Scott can be the bruising runner he was before getting hurt earlier this season.
Scott rushed for 147 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries in his team’s 17-7 win over Maryland in a snowstorm last season, and had 128 yards on 20 attempts and a touchdown two years ago in College Park, when the Terps won, 28-17.
5. How the team and the fans rally around Canada.
From all indications, the Terps like playing for the 46-year-old offensive coordinator and many of them would like to see him get the job on a permanent basis.
While Durkin’s presence might have caused both a distraction and some division among the team and is already evaporating fan base, Canada could be a coach that players and fans fully support.
Beating Michigan State will not only make the Terps bowl-eligible with three games remaining in the season, but could be a big step toward Canada securing the job.
As long as there is turmoil with the future of president Wallace Loh and athletic director Damon Evans, the list of those interested in the job will likely be small. If that happens, Canada could be right at the top of the list.