Texas battles Terrapins on Saturday at 11 CDT in season-opener
By Steve Habel, Senior Contributing Writer
AUSTIN – Texas coach Tom Herman said that the Longhorns’ mood is upbeat and positive as they finalized preparations for Saturday’s season-opening game versus Maryland at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland.
“The team is great – they are excited to go play a football game,” Herman said after practice on Thursday, the afternoon before the Longhorns boarded a charter flight for the first road game of the season. “We’re right where we need to be. We wanted to get in the routine by giving he players Monday off like they will have throughout the season, and we are fully transitioned into that routine.”
Herman was asked if there was any nervousness amongst the team, especially with at least a half-dozen freshmen expected to see the field on Saturday.
“We are going to have a lot of freshman that are going to play for us, and there will be some nervousness,” he explained. “But that is a good thing, it means you care, and you want to perform well for your teammates. The preparation won’t stop until kickoff at noon eastern time on Saturday.”
Herman also said freshman Cameron Dicker will start the season as his No. 1 kicker after beating out incumbent Joshua Rowland, a senior, for the spot.
This is a new Longhorns team, with a new attitude and confidence built from a winning 2017 campaign and a successful offseason of work.
“We are going to take a few lessons from here and there from last year,” Herman said. “We are not going to dwell on anything from previous years, this is a completely different team. We are in a good place.”
The relative success the Texas offense has had this fall has Herman thinking that side of the ball will show the most improvement.
“As much as we’ve been able to do against our defense – and that’s a group as talented as we will see all year from any opponent – it makes me think we will be better on offense this season,” Herman said.
Texas’ first step toward reaching its goals is beating Maryland, a program that’s reeling from the preseason death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair and the suspension of coach DJ Durkin as the school concludes its investigation into that tragedy – but those will be left on the sidelines once the game begins.
Maryland has plenty to play for and is not lacking for confidence after beating Texas 51-41 last season. That game produced an absurd 92 points, four non-offensive touchdowns, while a 20-point Maryland was lead trimmed to three points before the Terrapins pulled away in the final quarter. It was Maryland’s first win over a ranked opponent in seven years.
Maryland finished the year 4-8. While Durkin's status amid investigations into McNair's death and charges of a "toxic culture" remain unresolved, kickoff against Texas is fast-approaching. And for that, the team is relieved, according to interim coach Matt Canada, the former offensive coordinator at LSU.
“Our players are very excited that it's game week,” Canada said. “We have a difficult opponent in Texas Saturday. Our players did a tremendous job of focusing on each other, focusing on sticking together, obviously continuing to think about, talk about, grieve about and find different ways to play for Jordan.”
Either Tyrell Pigrome or Kasim Hill – both of whom were injured in the first and second game of last season, respectively – will get the nod at quarterback for the Terrapins, but the key for both is not only staying healthy but remaining effective.
Maryland’s offense averaged 315 yards on the ground the first two weeks last year with Pigrome and Hill at the controls, and managed just 131 per game after both went down with knee injuries.
The Terrains’ receiving corps loses record-breaking DJ Moore, but he running game should be in good shape with senior Ty Johnson and junior Lorenzo Harrison returning to the fold. Johnson averaged more than six yards per carry last fall, while Harrison has produced consecutive 600-yard-plus seasons as the team’s “plan B” and averaged over 7 yards per tote as a freshman.
The Maryland defense will be bolstered by the return of senior Jesse Aniebonam, who was lost for the season in the opener last year against Texas, a blow that severely undercut the Terrapins’ pass rush (five of the team’s 16 sacks came in that game).
Also back to contribute for Maryland will be junior middle linebacker Isaiah Davis (who had 70 tackles in 2017). Junior nickelback Antoine Brooks and senior strong safety Darnell Savage (who combined for five of the Terrapins’ 10 interceptions last fall) anchor the secondary.
Maryland’s defense allowed the most points in the Big Ten last season, the second-most yards in the conference and ranked third-worst in stopping the run and the pass.
Horns Illustrated prediction: Expect this game to be a slugfest until the fourth quarter when Texas’ depth (and perhaps a big special-team play) pushes the Longhorns to the front. We see it as a 38-20 Texas victory.