Texas A&M is 3-0 and ranked No. 7.
Iowa is 3-0 and ranked No. 5.
Maryland is 3-0, and although not ranked, the Terrapins notched a quality victory over West Virginia on the opening week of the season.
Those are Kent State’s three non-conferences opponents. For a program that entered the 2021 season with its highest expectations in decades, the out-of-conference slate has been nothing but brutal for the Golden Flashes. Kent State hung with Texas A&M and Iowa for a half before letting the top 10 opponents cruise to victory as the game progressed.
Now, the Golden Flashes turn their focus to Maryland, which is one of five unbeaten squads in a loaded Big Ten East. To preview Kent State’s Week 4 opponent, we bring in Ahmed Ghafir (@ghafirtheturtle) of Inside the Black & Gold (@insideblackgold) to talk about the Terrapins and the upcoming matchup.
Steve Helwick, Hustle Belt: Scratch the 2020 pandemic season, and Maryland has started 2-0 every year since 2016. Yet, the Terrapins haven’t finished with a winning record over that timespan. Why should I believe in this Maryland team? Are there any concerns that Maryland peaked in September again, similar to previous seasons?
Ahmed Ghafir, Inside the Black & Gold: It’s a valid concern. Through the years under Mike Locksley, non-conference play hasn’t always translated into conference play but this season feels different because of the mentality within the team. The players have been outspoken about the cultural transformation between year one and year three under Locksley and the renewed sense of responsibility. Everything I’ve heard inside is that cultural shift has led to a more focused team heading into 2021, but Maryland also has a clear-cut returning starter at quarterback for the first time since Randy Edsall served as the head coach. The second year jump in the offense has proved true so far and the Terps have upgraded the talent on both sides of the trenches, so fans are cautiously optimistic that Locksley and his staff can turn the page and improve this season. Whether the play in the trenches stays true, especially along the offensive line, will determine whether Maryland can get back to a bowl game.
Helwick: Taulia Tagovailoa looks much improved as a passer through three games, and he’s putting up some of the most efficient passing numbers in the country. What is your assessment of Tagovailoa during this first stretch of the season, and are there any aspects of his game in which you have seen noticeable refinement?
Ghafir: Tagovailoa has shown a vastly improved feel inside the pocket and has shied away from the questionable throws into tight coverage. Maryland has placed an emphasis on winning the turnover battle this season and can tell there’s a sense of caution when Tagovailoa is in the pocket. He has the skills to become a dual-threat quarterback and the offense leans on the RPO to open the game for Tagovailoa, but another aspect that sticks out is his consciousness to use his legs to extend the play for his veteran wide receivers. Tagovailoa did struggle going through his progression and at times, does lock into one or two receivers on a play and that led to stalled drives in last week’s comeback win. He does have a big arm which allows Maryland to stretch the field thanks to guys like Dontay Demus. The potential for the passing game has driven all the offseason headlines and through three weeks, Tagovailoa has been efficient to maximize the offense’s potential.
Helwick: Through three games, the Terps have looked sharp defensively in guarding both the air and ground. Which component of Maryland’s defense do you place more trust in? And which defensive player do you think makes the strongest impact Saturday against Kent State?
Ghafir: Maryland lost starting cornerback Deonte Banks likely for the season, but the secondary is a clear strength with cornerbacks Jakorian Bennett and Tarheeb Still back with All-Big Ten safety Nick Cross and veteran Jordan Mosley right behind him. Maryland has improved the talent and physical stature along the front seven to assemble the needed Big Ten line, but it’s the secondary who has lived up to the billing through the first three weeks. Missed tackles in the secondary and along the perimeter was the first significant for the defense in last week’s win, but the returning experience in the secondary is why Maryland has been able to force turnovers in each of the first three games.
But who is the one Terp for Kent State to be mindful of? Keep an eye on defensive end Sam Okuayinonu who has four sacks through the first three games, the sixth-most in the country and most over the first three games since Yannick Ngakoue did it back in 2015.
Helwick: What do you believe is the recipe for Kent State upsetting Maryland this weekend?
Ghafir: Quarterback Dustin Crum has had my attention since the summer and through the first four weeks, Crum is the most talented quarterback that this Maryland defense will face. He has the arm strength to test the Maryland secondary and the mobility to force the defense to play honest, so to me, that’s the biggest key needed to pull off the weekend upset. Teams have leaned on the jet sweeps and pre-snap motions to get the Maryland front seven out of position and Kent State receiver Nykeim Johnson could be one that capitalizes on a play like that, but it all starts with Crum’s performance if Kent State wants to get back to .500.
Helwick: How does Saturday’s matchup in College Park play out? Who wins and with what score?
Ghafir: I have Maryland moving to 4-0 behind a 41-14 win. Do I think Kent State can make this a shootout? Absolutely, but the defense enters Saturday with the talent to overmatch Kent State’s starting offensive line and the defensive backs to matchup against Kent State’s starting complimentary wideouts. I do think that if Kent State makes this a shootout Maryland have the firepower to match, but the margin for error is slim for the Golden Flashes in the first-ever meeting between the two teams.
The last leg of Kent State’s non-conference schedule kicks off at 3:30 p.m. ET in College Park, MD this Saturday. The game is available on Big Ten Network.