Maryland Football: Five Keys to Victory vs. SMU

Maryland (2-0, 0-0 B1G) vs. SMU (2-0, 0-0 AAC)

When: Sat., Sept. 17 | 7:35 p.m. EST

Where: Maryland Stadium

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Maryland football will take on its biggest matchup thus far and the first night game of the 2022 season. Led by first-year head coach Rhett Lashlee, SMU enters the matchup 2-0 after registering a 48-10 win at North Texas then a 45-16 win against Lamar. With Maryland looking to begin conference play undefeated, what do they need to take care of in order to come out on top against the Mustangs? We break down five things to watch on Saturday.

First Big Test for Maryland’s secondary

Locksley knew his defense needed to prepare “to be challenged vertically” going up against SMU. “They have three really strong receivers that offer different challenges. Number 11 will be the guy that gets the focal amount of the balls thrown his way. The other guys do a tremendous job of running in space, running after the catch. [Tanner] Mordecai gets the ball out quickly.” For Maryland’s secondary, that poses questions. Veteran corner Tarheeb Still is out again after undergoing surgery on an injury suffered ahead of the Charlotte game. Deonte Banks and Jakorian Bennett are veteran corners will have their hands full when matched up against Rashee Rice, a 6-foot-2 wideout with a team-high 17 catches. While Maryland is tasked with minimizing the big plays from Rice, the secondary adds depth with Corey Coley expected back this weekend. However, the young players at the cornerback position are the ones who could be tested early and often. Gavin Gibson and Lionell Whitaker both got into trouble with pass interference calls against Buffalo. However, they also have had some good moments in coverage during the first two games. Elsewhere in the secondary, Maryland has kept Beau Brade in the box at times where he’s been able to make his presence felt but with the vertical challenges that the Mustangs pose, how can he adjust? Tanner Mordecai enters Saturday 9-of-17 for 3 TDs and 287 yards on passes 20 yards or more, evidence of just how lethal the Mustang’s offense can be. This will be another game where the young talent benefits from playing early and often, but with a bowl game still the minimum objective this season, how do they adjust to the talent the Mustangs possess along the perimeter?

How Will the Front Seven Perform?

After some worries heading into the season, the front seven has shown glimpses of control through the first two games of the season. They have allowed under four yards a carry in the first two games and have gotten some pressure on the quarterback. Transfers Quashon Fuller and Henry Chibueze have made an impact on the field, but it was Fuller who had the only sack for Maryland against Charlotte. Returnees Mosiah Nasili-Kite, Ami Finau, and Greg China-Rose have done what has been expected of them while freshmen linebackers Jaishawn Barham, Caleb Wheatland and Kellen Wyatt have gotten plenty of playing time. Wyatt recorded a sack against Buffalo. Against an offensive line that returns four starters and added Georgia transfer Owen Condon as the new right tackle, Maryland will need to be dominant in order to apply pressure on quarterback Tanner Mordecai. “Not a guy that holds onto the football so what we’ve got to do…we’ve got to try to push the pocket through the middle, those A-gaps and have it in his lap, which forces him to get off his spot and make adjustments on throws,” Locksley said this week. That starts with Finau and Nasili-Kite while the linebackers will remain in heavy rotation just like they did the first two weeks, but for an NFL prospect like Durell Nchami coming off the edge, Maryland will need to find ways to generate pressure. Showing signs of optimism against SMU’s line exudes confidence for Maryland’s chances through conference play.

Will the Running Game be the Difference?

There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that Maryland and SMU will do most of their damage by throwing the football, but will run efficiency be the key on Saturday? Maryland’s emphasis on creating big plays on the ground has been well documented dating back to last season and through two weeks, fans have been able to see exactly that. First it was Roman Hemby who broke off a pair of big runs, including a 70-yard touchdown, before Colby McDonald and Antwain Littleton took over in last weekend’s win against Charlotte. Against Buffalo, all four touchdowns came on the ground while the Terps are nearly averaging 7.5 yards per rush. One running back to watch is freshman Ramon Brown as he hasn’t had his “welcome to college football” moment yet. Could this be his breakout game? The defense has also done its job, holding both Buffalo and Charlotte to under four yards a carry, but SMU running back TJ McDaniel sits third in the AAC with 68.5 yards per game to start the season.

Will This be Dontay Demus’ Comeback Game?

Demus’ recovery from a serious knee injury against Iowa last year has been nothing short of amazing. When everyone thought he wouldn’t be back until at least conference play, he was back on the field in week one and has had some good moments. He caught a tough sideline pass against Buffalo and a 23-yard reception against Charlotte. Through two games, though, Demus has only caught five passes for 52 yards. For comparison, Jeshaun Jones also suffered a knee injury last year and leads the team with ten catches for 141 yards. Could SMU be where Demus has his “I’m back” type of game? Head coach Mike Locksley said that Demus is “acclimating really well” as the staff continues to monitor his load. “Based on our sports science, based on the eye test, we’re still kind of not easing him back but making sure we’re not loading him up too much,” Locksley added. “We’ve been fortunate because the last couple of games, we haven’t necessarily gotten to the number of plays we’d like to have in a game. We’ve got him right on track and he’s meeting all of the standards that we’ve set.” Week three was pegged as the week that Demus could return to full form and if he does, Maryland’s offense will be even tougher to stop on Saturday night.

Will the Miscues Show up Again?

A few things that have been frustrating for fans have been turnovers and penalties. Sure, it’s early, but Maryland is tied for the third-most penalties in the Big Ten. Last season, Maryland finished with the second-most penalties in the conference. Maryland also has yet to win the turnover battle in a game this season, arguably the biggest concern thus far, while Taulia has a pair of interceptions through two games. The first came when Taulia overthrew Corey Dyches against Buffalo, while the second was a jump ball that Demus could not come down with right before halftime against Charlotte. Maryland cannot afford to turn it over against SMU, and they must get a few takeaways of their own on defense. Penalties have been worse as they have cost the Terps a few big plays. Jaelyn Duncan and DJ Glaze have both been guilty of costing the offense with holding calls. The defense has also had some issues with penalties. The secondary has allowed drives to continue with some pass interference calls and against an SMU team that challenges Maryland’s secondary, it’s time to shine for the units coached by Henry Baker and Wes Neighbors. The Terps need to cut down on the penalties to give themselves a chance to win this game.

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