With the Most Important Players and Position Previews sections of our Summer Guide having wrapped up, we now move on to our Know Your Opponent series, in which we preview every team Northwestern will face this season. When we hit game week, we will have more in-depth and comprehensive coverage, but for now we give you a general overview of the team so you know what to expect.
Consecutive games against Wisconsin and Penn State will test the Wildcats, and likely drain them of some energy. Following a home game against Penn State, Northwestern will head to College Park to face Maryland in what could be a trap game.
Returning Starters: 12 (six offensive, six defensive)
Returning Experience: 46%
2016 Record: 6-7 (3-6 Big Ten)
Coach: D.J. Durkin (second year, 6-7 overall, 3-6 in conference play)
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2016 S&P+ Overall: 87th
2016 S&P+ Offense: 86th
2016 S&P+ Defense: 79th
2017 S&P+ Projection: 72nd
Maryland didn’t surprise anyone in 2016, but that’s not to say it wasn’t a successful season. In his first year as head coach, DJ Durkin guided the Terps to a 6-6 regular season record and their third bowl game in four years. He also brought home the program’s best recruiting class in history. The positives? Maryland started the season 5-2 and knocked off a miserable Michigan State team, but a perennially successful Big Ten program nonetheless. However, the Terps went 1-5 from that point on, getting thoroughly demolished by Ohio State, Michigan, and Nebraska in consecutive weeks. A win over Rutgers got Maryland to the Quick Lane Bowl, but UMD could not come back in that game after falling behind early to Boston College. Like most middle-tier Big Ten teams, Maryland beat teams it was supposed to, and lost to teams it was inferior to. That trend seems likely to hold true in 2017 as well.
Losing starting quarterback Perry Hills to injury during both the Michigan and Ohio State games didn’t help, but Maryland struggled to move the ball against strong defenses. The Terps averaged only 4.1 yards per play against top-50 S&P+ teams and mustered 13 points in their miserable three-game November stretch against ranked opponents.
Maryland’s explosive rushing attack is worth taking note of. Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison shared running back duties, and the duo combined for 1637 yards at 8.3 yards per carry, leading a ground attack that ranked 12th in the country in Rushing S&P+.
Johnson didn’t fumble in 110 carries last year and he also averaged nearly 13 yards per catch out of the backfield. He’ll get the starting nod running behind a talented offensive line that features former five-star tackle Damian Prince among three returners.
Maryland’s passing attack is a bit more suspect. Actually, in a word, it’s bad. Gone from last year’s unit (ranked 101st in college football) is two-year starter Hills.
No one has any idea who the starter will be come September 2, but there is a good chance that a couple of Terrapins will line up under center throughout the season.
Sophomore Tyrell Pigrome got playing time as a true freshman when Hills went down last season, and the former three-star athlete gained valuable experience against Penn State and Ohio State. He ended up third on the team in rushing yards and didn’t get sacked much, but didn’t show a lot of polish as a passer.
If Pigrome struggles early, UNC transfer Caleb Henderson and four-star freshman Kasim Hill wait in the wings.
Top receiver and tantalizing playmaker D.J. Moore leads a green group of pass-catchers. A deep group of young receivers includes high three-stars Tahj Capehart and Jayden Comma will get opportunities to break out, with little experience above them on the depth chart.
Maryland’s run defense struggled mightily in 2016, surrendering 414 (!) rushing yards to Indiana (!!) and ranking second-to-last in the country in Rushing S&P+.
Help is on the way, though, as Maryland has recruited well along the defensive line — the 2017 class features six lineman who are ranked three stars or better — to supplement their star, Jesse Aniebonam, who registered nine sacks and 14 tackles for loss last year. The only way to go is up for the run defense, and a year of experience will be huge for a front seven that loses very little talent from its ranks. In the middle of it all is senior MIKE Jermaine Carter Jr., a two-time Big Ten honorable mention nominee and a third-year starter.
Relying on improvement up front is a greener secondary. Maryland’s back four was much better that its front seven, but the secondary still ranked 80th in Passing S&P+ last season. Former Under Armour All-American JC Jackson led the team with six passes defended last year, and Darnell Savage Jr. will anchor the safety spot. Starting opposite Jackson will be sophomore Tino Ellis, who came to Maryland as a highly-touted wide receiver, but showed flashes in the secondary last year.
A talented foundation of young defenders means Maryland’s defense should improve considerably this year; they are projected to finish 45th in S&P+ in 2017. The run defense remains a question mark, however, and with a brutal road schedule (Texas, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State) Maryland could struggle defensively.
Three Players to Watch
RB Ty Johnson
Johnson was mentioned before, but he's worth circling back to because he represents Maryland’s most credible offensive threat. The Terps are going to do their best to get the ball into Johnson’s hands as much as possible, and with good reason -- he averaged 9.1 yards per carry last season. He’s got game-breaking speed, as was evidenced in a 76-yard run against Purdue and a 66-yard reception against Penn State. He’s not Saquon Barkley, and he’s definitely not Justin Jackson, but Johnson belongs in the conversation among top-tier Big Ten backs.
LB Jermaine Carter Jr.
Carter is a solid tackler and a disruptive playmaker, and the heart of the defense at the same time. The senior has led the Terps in tackles the past two years and was named to the Butkus Award watch list before the season. Carter registered six sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception in 2016. He's a versatile playmaker and a team leader for Maryland.
WR Taivon Jacobs
At present, Maryland’s passing game does not inspire fear in the hearts of rival Big Ten defensive coordinators. Most teams will gameplan to stop the run and make Maryland beat them elsewhere. To develop a viable threat through the air, another receiver will need to step up alongside D.J. Moore. Jacobs lost 2016 and nearly all of 2014 to injury, but he has shown flashes of potential, starting with his four star rating out of high school. The senior was a track star in high school and started four games as a sophomore in 2015. Jacobs is the only returning receiver besides Moore with upwards of two career catches, and if he shows flashes of his younger self, defenses might have to take Maryland’s passing attack more seriously.