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Behind Enemy Lines: Q&A with Testudo Times

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In our Q&A, Testudo Times’ Ryan Connors shares whether first-year coach DJ Durkin has exceeded expectations, breaks down the Michigan-Maryland matchup, and predicts whether the Terps can keep the score close on Saturday.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Central Florida Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Hate Week has come and gone, and Michigan has entered the month of November with an 8-0 record and as one of five remaining unbeaten teams. The Wolverines will put that on the line this Saturday when Maryland, led by former Wolverine coordinator DJ Durkin, arrives in Ann Arbor. To learn more about Michigan’s next foe, we reached out to Ryan Connors (@RyanConnors_), who is the managing editor of Testudo Times (@testudotimes) — SB Nation’s Maryland site. Ryan took time to answer our questions regarding whether Durkin has exceeded expectations in Year 1 of his Maryland tenure, why the Terrapins’ running back duo of Lorenzo Harrison and Ty Johnson has been so dynamic, whether Maryland’s poor run defense has any semblance of hope of stopping DeVeon Smith and co, and whether the Wolverines or Terrapins will win this matchup.

Please read below for Ryan’s answers to our questions!

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Maize n Brew: Michigan's former defensive coordinator, DJ Durkin, is in Year 1 of his tenure as Maryland's head football coach. The Terrapins already have earned two more wins in eight games this season than they did all of last season and are positioned 14th in 247Sports' 2017 Composite Team Rankings. How has the Maryland fan base received Durkin in his first season? Has he exceeded expectations so far?

Ryan Connors: I think I can say pretty confidently that everyone is all aboard the DJ Durkin bandwagon. Winning more than three games certainly helps with that, but he's a much more energetic guy than Randy Edsall was (not a hard task) and he's assembled a great staff so far. Expectations here are a weird thing, because most rational people thought this team would go either 5-7 or 6-6 this year, and with five wins already and a matchup with Rutgers in the season finale, 6-6 is attainable.

MnB: What has been the most pleasant surprise for Maryland in DJ Durkin's first season? What has been the biggest disappointment?

RC: The biggest surprise has to be running back Lorenzo Harrison. We'll talk more about him later, but he was a three-star recruit who's become possibly the team's best back this season. He's bound to break off an exciting run at least once per game, though that'll obviously be a tough task against a team like Michigan. We'll talk more about this later too, but Maryland's run defense has easily been the worst thing about this team. It's the reason the Terps lost to Indiana, and bad run defense has been a hallmark of two of the team's three losses.

MnB: Maryland sits at 5-3 and seeks its sixth and bowl-clinching win. However, the Terrapins have a grueling three-game stretch ahead: at No. 3 Michigan, No. 6 Ohio State, and at No. 10 Nebraska. What do fans hope to see? Do they believe the Terrapins can get that sixth win there? Or will it all fall on the finale against Rutgers? And what would beating an AP top-10 team mean for Maryland moving forward?

RC: Most fans are probably just looking ahead to that Rutgers game. Michigan, Ohio State and Nebraska are all head and shoulders over Maryland. And for fans, that should be an OK fact to accept. The Terps are in year one with a new coach, and this whole thing is going to take time. I think fans are just hoping that these games aren't total blowouts, and that maybe we can get to watch some fun big plays from Maryland's backfield. If Maryland beats an AP top-10 team, just build the DJ Durkin statue right now.

MnB: Let's talk Michigan-Maryland matchups. The Terrapins' best offensive strength is running the football (11th in YPC and 18th in S&P+). They have two excellent running backs in Lorenzo Harrison (79 car., 575 yards, 7.3 YPC, 5 TD) and Ty Johnson (60 car., 624 yards, 10.4 YPC, 4 TD) and two quarterbacks in Perry Hills and Tyrrell Pigrome that can make defenses pay with their feet. What does Maryland do to be so successful on the ground? What is the key to slowing down Maryland's rush attack?

RC: For Maryland to be successful on the ground, Johnson and Harrison have to get past the line of scrimmage. Once Johnson can get past the line and make one cut, he's very easily gone, and almost no one can catch him. Of course, if there's any defender in the country who can catch up to him, it's probably Jabrill Peppers. Another key is that Maryland has to do enough in the passing game so defenses can't just only focus on the run. A hallmark of Maryland's losses to Penn State and Minnesota was a complete lack of execution through the air, though those two games were quarterbacked by backup Tyrrell Pigrome.

MnB: It must be jaw-dropping for Maryland fans to see that Perry Hills is no longer an interception-throwing machine. After tossing 13 in 180 attempts in 2015, he's thrown just three in 140 attempts this year. However, the Terrapins' offense still is only 81st in Passing S&P+, and it'll be facing a Michigan pass defense that's been the nation's best. How has Hills improved this season? What does he need to do to find open receivers against Michigan? And will his offensive line be able to protect him (Maryland is 119th in adj. sack rate) from Michigan's pass rush (4th in adj. sack rate)?

RC: Yeah, this transformation's been pretty stunning. I think we can place the some credit on offensive coordinator Walt Bell, who's calling pass plays significantly less often than his predecessor. But Hills certainly has looked better throwing this season, and you can't just call this regression to the mean. The offensive line hasn't seemed like too much of a problem recently after a clearly weak start, but I'd bet on Michigan having a very good pass-rushing day.

MnB: It'd be polite to say that Maryland's run defense has been poor. The Terrapins are 96th in YPC and 127th in Run Defense S&P+, and, in the last four games, they have surrendered an average of 321.3 rushing yards per game, 6.09 rushing yards per carry, and 3.3 rushing touchdowns per game. Why have opponents been able to shred Maryland's defense on the ground? Will Michigan be able to do the same?

RC: First off, yes, Michigan will be able to run all over Maryland. There's simply no evidence to suggest otherwise. Maryland's poor run defense has been a combination of mostly underperformance and some inexperience. The unit returned a couple starters on the line and added a former four-star recruit at end, but hasn't been able to get into opponents backfield at all. At linebacker, returning star Jermaine Carter Jr. hasn't quite looked like himself all season and Shane Cockerille is still learning the position, as he was a quarterback at this time last season.

MnB: Opponents have run the ball so much against Maryland (2nd in std. downs run rate) that not as much attention is paid to what has been a good Terrapins' pass defense (27th in QB rating and 31st in S&P+). Who have been the stars of this pass defense? And how have they stepped up after Will Likely went out for the season?

RC: Will Likely was a star who'll be missed on this team. He and cornerback Alvin Hill have been the unit's stars, while JC Jackson and Tino Ellis have both been solid alternating at the other cornerback spot. RaVon Davis, a sophomore who walked on in the spring, is Likely's replacement at nickel corner, and while he's seemed solid, he's no Will Likely. The Terps are now in pretty dire straits at safety, as Denzel Conyers is out for the season and Darnell Savage Jr. isn't guaranteed to play this weekend.

MnB: List the three things that must happen for Maryland to upset Michigan.

RC: Maryland must hit on more than a few big plays.

Michigan must make some pretty big mistakes in, like, every phase of the game.

Maryland's run defense actually has to, ya know, stop the run.

MnB: Prediction time. What happens? Who wins? What is the final score?

RC: I'm not rocking any boats here. Maryland is just too overmatched. Going with 43-13, Michigan.

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So Ryan predicts that Michigan will secure another Big Ten blowout this season. What do you think of his responses? Agree or disagree? Please share your comments below!

And we want to thank Ryan for participating in this Q&A. Make sure to follow his Maryland coverage over at Testudo Times and on Twitter at @RyanConnors_.