Maryland football hopes to recapture its early game intensity against Rutgers

Running back Tayon Fleet-Davis points to the sky during Maryland football's 48-7 win over Rutgers on Oct. 5, 2019. (Julia Nikhinson/The Diamondback)

Maryland football’s offense was rolling six plays into its first drive against Indiana, sitting well within scoring distance at the Hoosiers’ 25-yard line.

Putting points on the board early, as the Terps had done in each of their first three contests, would help set the tone and put pressure on the No. 12 team in the country.

Instead, Maryland came up empty. Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa missed on his next three pass attempts — including overthrowing a wide-open Dontay Demus Jr. in the end zone — and kicker Joseph Petrino shanked a 29-yard field goal try.

For the first time all season, the Terps didn’t score on their opening possession. They looked out of sorts the rest of the contest en route to a 27-11 loss defined by missed scoring chances and sputtering drives.

And as Maryland heads into its final regular season game against Rutgers, the Terps will need to recapture that quick-start magic if they want to dispel the Scarlet Knights early.

“Coming out strong always gives you the momentum swing early in the game,” Demus said.

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That momentum had been critical to Maryland (2-2) in its previous two games, both wins. The offense needed 11 plays to travel 82 yards and find the end zone against Minnesota, beginning a banner night for the Terps en route to a 45-44 overtime victory.

And that carried over the following week against Penn State. A six-play drive ended with Rakim Jarrett outrunning the Nittany Lions’ defense and crossing the goal line for a touchdown, kickstarting a 28-point first half explosion.

So when Maryland’s first drive against Indiana stalled, Coach Mike Locksley saw it as more evidence of the importance of starting fast.

“It gives your team confidence,” Locksley said. “It helps a young team that typically plays kind of to the ups and downs of the game, the ebb and flow.”

While the Terps’ confidence and identity is largely shaped by its offense, the defense has stepped up early and often in the past two contests. After allowing opening drive touchdowns and at least 43 points to both Northwestern and Minnesota, the Terps clamped down against the Nittany Lions and Hoosiers.

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Maryland allowed Penn State to drive into the red zone but forced an incompletion on fourth down to hold strong. And the Terps one-upped themselves the following game. The unit forced a three-and-out from an Indiana offense that entered the match near the top of the Big Ten in most stat categories.

“It really gives us the confidence to show we can play with these guys,” defensive back Kenny Bennett said. “Really … [helps] us gain faith in each other and gain faith in the game plan.”

So as Rutgers (2-5) rolls into College Park, Maryland knows it must keep up its strong starts if it wants to put the game away quickly. But that won’t be easy against this Scarlet Knights side.

Long the division’s bottomfeeder, Rutgers entered 2020 with a new coach and revitalized competitive spirit that has led to its first conference victories since 2017 while keeping it close in most losses. It’s slowly improving, and Locksley said his team needs to keep pace with the Scarlet Knights’ grit to come out on top.

“These guys fight for four quarters,” Locksley said. “You’ve got to bring the mentality and match the intensity in which they’ll play with.”

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