Let’s try this again! After making it through two opponent previews of the previous schedule before the Big Ten’s postponement announcement, we’re back with the final installment of our 2020 summer/preseason guide. We’ll take you through Northwestern’s fall schedule week-by-week, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and identifying some key players to look out for. The series serves as a way for us to evaluate and take stock of the team’s upcoming opponents.
It’s a battle of the 3-9 teams! Up first is Maryland, who NU last faced in 2017, when the Wildcats ran past the Terrapins 37-21 in College Park. Justin Jackson totaled 171 yards and two touchdowns as he became the program’s all-time leading rusher. After the departure of several key players last season and a second-year coach, Maryland is hardly going to challenge for a division title yet, but it has explosive wide receivers and a potential steal in transfer QB Taulia Tagovailoa — yes, Tua’s younger brother.
Returning Production: 56 percent (Offense 62 percent, Defense 51 percent)
2019 record: 3-9 (1-8 Big Ten)
Coach: Mike Locksley
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders (and now ESPN!). You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2019 S&P+ Overall: 96th
2019 S&P+ Offense: 76th
2019 S&P+ Defense: 79th
If a Terps fan saw their team’s start to last year and proceeded to miss the remainder of the season, they’d probably be fairly satisfied by the outcome. Mike Locksley’s first season as head coach couldn’t have gotten off to a better start, with dominant wins over Howard and then-No. 21 Syracuse in the first two weeks to momentarily propel the Terrapins into the Top 25.
Things quickly turned, though, and before long Maryland’s season was headed to the gutter. They followed a road loss to Temple to end their non-conference schedule by getting shellacked 59-0 by Penn State. The season featured no rebound from that point forward, with UMD winning only its next matchup at Rutgers before losing seven straight to close the season.
It certainly was not the season the Terps faithful were hoping for, but in their first year fully removed from the coaching uncertainty following the tragic death of then-freshman offensive lineman Jordan McNair, such results were understandable. However, with only 56 percent of their production returning and a bevy of COVID-related issues clouding their summer training, an ominous season now looms for a program that desperately wants to avoid switching places with Greg Schiano’s Rutgers as the perennial bottom-feeders of the Big Ten East.
Neither offensive component was strong for the Terrapins in 2019, but they definitely found the majority of their limited success on the ground. Starting running backs Javon Leake and Anthony McFarland combined for 1350 yards and 16 touchdowns, with an additional 446 yards of ground support coming from third-string back Tayon Fleet-Davis, the run game’s heir-apparent following Leake and McFarland’s departures.
Under center, things appear to be much less cut and dry as a result of some substantial offseason developments, the first and most immediately pertinent of which is the decision by 2019 starter Josh Jackson to opt out of the season over COVID-19 concerns. Aside from Jackson, two Terps saw significant time under center in 2019: Tyrrell Pigrome, who has since transferred to Western Kentucky, and Lance LeGendre, who saw the field in only three games, preserving his first year of eligibility under a redshirt.
LeGendre now finds himself in a battle for the starting job with none other than Taulia Tagovailoa, the brother of former Alabama star Tua Tagovailoa. Taulia transferred to Maryland in May, hoping for a better chance at playing time than he had in Tuscaloosa behind Mac Jones.
Both LeGendre and Tagovailoa are exciting signal-callers who have the potential to take Maryland’s program to the next level, but neither has proven himself yet on account of their inexperienced college careers. No matter which QB Locksley selects, the Terps will have a first-time starter on their hands against an experiences Northwestern defense that has long been the strength of the program. Thus, it’s fair for Maryland and Northwestern fans alike to expect a shaky offense showing from the Terrapins in Week 1 while holding out some optimism/caution for a breakout performance.
Ranked 109th nationally and dead last in the Big Ten in total defense, the 2019 Maryland defense was, in a word, abysmal. The Terrapins retreated into their shells several times, including allowing 40- and 54-point showings from Purdue and Nebraska, respectively, two teams not exactly recognized for their offense prowess last year. The good (?) news for UMD is that they returned even less defensive production (51 percent) than offensive production (62 percent)!
Gone is Antoine Brooks, the standout safety who tallied 87 tackles and an interception in his senior season. Departed is Keandre Jones, the former graduate transfer from Ohio State who recorded 15 tackles for loss, seven sacks and three forced fumbles at linebacker last year. Instead, Northwestern’s offense, which is looking for a boost in production under new leadership after a dismal 2019, will open up against second-year coordinator Jon Hoke’s group.
Despite leadership from Brooks, Maryland struggled against the pass, and there’s not much to signal a change this year. If Mike Bajakian intends to shift the offense away from the run-heavy approach that defined the Mick McCall era (see: predictable first down inside zone run), he’ll have no better chance to set the tone than against UMD, whch allowed 271 yards per game to opposing quarterbacks last season.
The one glimmer of hope on the defensive end of the ball for the Terps is Ayinde Eley, their weak-side linebacker. Eley was second in tackles only to Brooks with 79 takedowns and fits Hoke’s 3-4 scheme well. Locksley will need a big season from him against both the pass and run in order to prevent regular offensive onslaughts from opponents.
Three Players to Know
Dontay Demus, Jr., WR
No matter who starts at quarterback, their go-to target will be Demus, who finished 2019 leading the team with 625 yards and six touchdowns receiving. His quickness and agility make him a regular big play threat, setting him aside from a wideouts group whose next three receivers combined accumulated only 538 yards and one score last season.
Taulia Tagovailoa, QB
The hype surrounding Tagovailoa is real, and it’s not all on account of his brother’s historic college career. He was 247 Sports’ fourth-ranked pro-style QB in the 2019 class behind only Spencer Rattler, Ryan Hilinski and Graham Mertz, all of whom have earned starting jobs on major Power 5 teams. While there’s still a very real chance he’ll at least start the season on the bench, with a last name like Tagovailoa and strong recruiting profile to boot, he’ll be a player to keep an eye on for Maryland.
Ayinde Eley, ILB
In addition to his ability in comparison to the rest of the Maryland defense, Eley looks to take on the role of a leader in 2020. He’s a known hype man, and established a special teams tradition with last year’s primary kick returner, Javon Leake, whom he told before each kick, “I’ll meet you at home.” While we don’t know who Maryland’s captains are just yet – Locksley announces captains weekly before each game — don’t be surprised to see Eley named, and don’t be shocked to hear his name called quite a bit on October 24.