By Alexander Dacy and Jacob Richman
Halfway through the 2021 season, Maryland football sits in a strong position. The Terps are 4-2, though coming off blowout losses to Iowa and Ohio State.
With the team on bye this week before gearing up for the back half of its schedule, we asked Maryland fans to send us questions on Twitter about the state of the team six games in. Here are our answers:
What is Maryland’s path to qualifying for a bowl game?
Unlike past seasons, the Terps have a manageable path to a bowl. They’ve already played their two toughest opponents in the Hawkeyes and Buckeyes, and they should be favored in three of their six remaining contests.
Maryland arguably should clinch a bowl bid by the end of the month. Next week, coach Mike Locksley’s squad travels to Minnesota to face a team missing its offensive catalyst in running back Mohamed Ibrahim. The Gophers have been rather hit or miss without him, and a Terps’ defense that’s expected to be much healthier should be able to stop the Minnesota attack.
Indiana’s in a similar spot, down quarterback Michael Penix Jr. The Hoosiers have been a disappointment after starting the year in the top 25, and their already-concerning offense will slip further without Penix.
Should Maryland not pick up both those games, they await three straight top-10 foes, followed by a matchup against Rutgers. It’s somewhat of a slim margin, but the Terps are in a decent position to go bowling for the first time since 2016.
How would you rank Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State from most likely to be a Maryland win to least likely and why?
Most likely: Michigan State.
What this comes down to, for me, is which defense Maryland has the best chance of exploiting. And the Spartans’ defense has been pretty haggard, particularly against the passing game. Michigan State ranks dead-last in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed per game, at just 301.7.
Least likely: Penn State.
I expect the Nittany Lions to come into College Park enraged on the heels of a loss to Ohio State, and unfortunately, the Terps will be on the receiving end of that anger. Penn State is absolutely stifling offenses right now, so the only way to beat them is to keep them off the board. We’ll see how Maryland’s defense improves once a few pieces get back in the lineup, but at the moment, I don’t see the path for a win.
Somewhere in the middle: Michigan.
Although the Terps get the chance to play both the Nittany Lions and the Wolverines at home, it’s hard to imagine them getting wins over either. But I think it’s a bit more likely Maryland could steal one from Michigan — they’ve played some very close games versus Big Ten teams on a similar level to the Terps in Nebraska and Rutgers.
For wide receiver Rakim Jarrett, is this Minnesota game a matchup we could expect to see more dedicated touches for him given the extra two weeks to prepare?
We’ll probably get more clarity from Locksley next week, but Jarrett should be the offense’s new star piece. The early loss of Jeshaun Jones allowed Ohio State to key on Jarrett for most of the game, limiting him to just the one touchdown catch for 43 yards.
While the Terps smartly spread the touches around, they’ll need to figure out a way to break Jarrett loose since he’ll be drawing the most attention from here on. His speed is enough to open the playbook against weaker corners, and these next two contests against Minnesota and Indiana should be a good gauge of how reliable he can be before heading into tougher matchups.
What this allows Maryland to do is diversify its playbook and get the tight ends involved. Chig Okonkwo and Corey Dyches saw significantly more playing time after Jones went down, and the Terps would be wise to use them in more formations and not just rely on Jarrett.
What has this season done so far for Taulia Tagovailoa’s development? What’s the biggest leap he’s taken?
After the first four games, it would’ve been easy to say consistency — he had a completion rate over 75 percent — but the past two games have revealed Tagovailoa hasn’t quite figured that out.
But, if you take out his abysmal performance against Iowa, Tagovailoa’s largest area of improvement is decision-making. As bad as Friday night two weeks ago was, just watching him against Ohio State, he learned his lesson.
Save for two big mistakes in the fourth quarter, Tagovailoa was easily the best player on the offense Saturday. He was back at 71.8 percent completion and threw for 279 yards and two touchdowns.
That’s not an easy thing to do after being embarrassed in primetime.
Is there anything to the theory that Maryland suffers more knee injuries than most college football teams?
It’s incredibly difficult to compare injuries team to team, as pretty much every football player is banged up in some capacity by season’s end. The Terps have had the misfortune of having some of their biggest names suffer these injuries.
One theory specific to this year is that Maryland only played five games last season, so that relative down period might have caused some players to not be in the best shape. But the root causes are almost impossible to pin down, and I wouldn’t read too much into it otherwise.
Who will be back from injury for next game?
If you didn’t catch my injury report from earlier this week, here’s a quick rundown of who is currently injured and should be expected back following the extra week of rest.
Jakorian Bennett: Despite a hamstring issue, Bennett traveled with the team to Columbus, Ohio, last weekend. But after going through warmups, the coaching staff made the call he would sit for the game. Extra time should see Bennett return to the lineup.
Kenny Bennett: Bennett had a hurt hamstring during practice last week and didn’t travel with the team, but with extra rest, he would be expected back with the team against Minnesota.
Branden Jennings: Jennings has been battling with an unspecified leg injury for a few weeks and was seen with a brace on his leg during practice on Oct. 5. Already down a linebacker this season, getting Jennings fully healthy would be a massive boost for Maryland.
Has Locksley’s team shown legit strides from Year 1 to Year 3?
While there’s obvious growing pains, the Terps are definitely better in 2021 than 2019. I think there’s even an argument that this Maryland team has the most raw talent since it joined the Big Ten.
Injuries will test their depth, but the Terps appear to have bought in to Locksley’s system, especially now that nearly the entire team is made of players he recruited. Their chemistry is much tighter, and they are playing with more confidence.
Is Maryland at a point where it can compete with the Big Ten’s elite? Not quite. But the strides are there, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Terps pick off a top-tier opponent in the near future as they keep gelling.