Cornhuskers fight to keep their bowl chances alive when they take on the Terrapins
If the Nebraska Cornhuskers are going to become bowl eligible they have to win both of their remaining games, starting with Saturday's road game against the Maryland Terrapins. While the Cornhuskers (4-6, 2-5 Big Ten) still have a chance at playing the postseason that's not the case for Terrapins (3-7, 1-6), who have lost five in a row.
These teams have met just once before in 2016 when Nebraska picked up a 28-7 victory in Lincoln. This year’s clash in College Park gives a pair of programs that are down on their luck the opportunity to take some much-needed positive momentum into the offseason. It could also be a sneakily entertaining matchup.
Nebraska at Maryland
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 23 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Nebraska -4
When Nebraska Has the Ball
Quarterback Adrian Martinez looked better than he had all year versus Wisconsin, going 13-of-23 for 220 yards with one touchdown and an interception. He also contributed 89 yards and a score on the ground.
The biggest surprise was running back Dedrick Mills, who eclipsed the 100-yard mark before Badgers star Jonathan Taylor with a breakout 188-yard performance. The news only gets better for the Huskers, as Wan'Dale Robinson has returned to the depth chart to give Nebraska one of its most prolific offensive weapons back.
Scott Frost’s play-calling was largely positive between the 20-yard lines but seized up in the red zone, which cost the Huskers opportunities at toppling Wisconsin. Expect the usual lineup of wide receivers with JD Spielman leading the way in an effort to put an end to these woes.
Maryland's defense will challenge the Huskers with a 3-4 look of their own. Everything starts up front for them with Brett Kulka and Keiron Howard at the end positions and Oluwaseun Oluwatimi at nose tackle. A linebacker corps of Shaq Smith, Chance Campbell, Ayinde Eley, and standout Keandre Jones work to solidify the second level with Deonte Banks and Marcus Lewis as the Terrapins’ cornerback threats. Nick Cross and the notable Antoine Brooks Jr. lock down the safety spots.
Maryland has surrendered an average of 34.3 points per contest this year, but they will be aided if the Nebraska offense continues to sputter as it has all season long. Look for Nebraska to try to exploit a pass defense that ranks 114th nationally for giving up 268.7 yards per game.
When Maryland Has the Ball
Led by quarterback Josh Jackson, the Terrapins average 28.9 points per game. The signal-caller from Ann Arbor, Michigan, has completed less than half f his passes for 1,100 yards and carries a 13:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Tyrell Pigrome also has seen time at quarterback due to injury and game plan. Pigrome has been more accurate as a passer than Jackson (59.1 percent completion rate), but the latter has the edge when it comes to yardage (Pigrome has thrown for 684). Pigrome also has tossed more picks (six) than touchdowns (three).
Maryland’s best pass-catching option remains receiver Dontay Demus Jr. (33 catches, 517 yards, 5 touchdowns). Production takes quite the drop from there with the Terrapins’ second- and third-best receivers being tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo (18, 190, 2) and Brian Cobbs (13, 182).
Nebraska may employ a similar defensive game plan to what they ran against Wisconsin, as the Terrapins have their own fleet of running backs. The trio of Javon Leake, Anthony McFarland Jr., and Tayon Fleet-Davis have combined for 1,346 yards and 16 touchdowns. One potential complication for the Cornhuskers is the fact that it's unknown if nose tackle Darrion Daniels or defensive end Carlos Davis will be able to play. If either is unable to go, Damion Daniels (Darrion's younger brother) and Ben Stille would step in.
Nebraska has gone with a variety of looks as of late, shifting outside linebackers Garrett Nelson and JoJo Domann around in 4-2-5 and makeshift 4-3 roles. Defensive backs Dicaprio Bootle and Cam Taylor-Britt swapped positions with the former manning a safety spot and Taylor-Britt holding down the fort at cornerback. They were effective last week as the Huskers held Badgers quarterback Jack Coan to just 13-of-21 passing for 162 yards and a touchdown.
Nebraska has proven that they can be run on, as the Huskers give up 188.3 yards per game (92nd nationally). In order to notch win No. 5 on the year, they absolutely cannot afford to let another crew of running backs to rack up anywhere near the 322 yards that Minnesota’s did. By the same token, Maryland’s not exactly stout against the run themselves, giving up 174.2 yards per game.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that the Terrapin backs will get their yardage and probably a few touchdowns for their efforts. However, if the Nebraska offense that took the field versus Wisconsin shows up, we could be in for a shootout.
Another game where two out of three phases of the game are out of whack likely dooms the Big Red. But there’s a slightly larger margin for error based on big-play potential versus the Terrapin defense. No matter the opponent, the Huskers have to convert once they’re in the red zone. Fortunately for them, Maryland allows a score 86 percent of the time in that scenario. But the Huskers are one of the worst teams in the nation once they are inside their opponent's 20-yard line (77 percent).
That's just one of the factors that makes this game a toss-up. Don't be surprised if it comes down to the Big Red's shaky kicking unit.
Prediction: Nebraska 31, Maryland 28