Featured photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics
With banged-up quarterback Perry Hills back under center, Maryland’s offensive line turned in one of its best performances and allowed Hills to torment the Michigan State defense.
Due in part to a shoulder injury that sidelined Hills for the past game and a half, Maryland had lost two in a row. In response, the coaching staff changed the emphasis of the week’s practice. The offensive linemen upped their pass protection drills, but more importantly, they were reminded of the joy playing football can bring.
“Our practice heading into Michigan State was so much better,” left guard Mike Minter said, comparing the team’s practices to those leading up to games against Penn State and Minnesota. “We had so much more energy. It was a lot more fun.”
Before kickoff Saturday night against the Spartans, players gathered in a rectangle on the sidelines, jumped around, screamed, and waved towels in an effort to pump themselves up. Minter called the ritual, which was led by the strength and conditioning coaches, “the juicebox.” The entire week of practice was like that, he said.
The juicebox isn’t necessarily a brand new offering by the coaches, Minter carefully added.
“These guys are the most intense, juiced up dudes I’ve ever met in my entire life,” he said of the coaching staff. “To say it hasn’t been going on, it’d just be wrong. But I think that this week, coach [DJ] Durkin and everybody tried to focus on having a lot more fun and controlling the controllables.”
The line went out and controlled the Spartan pass rush. Maryland gave up a season-low one sack after surrendering three in each of the previous two weeks. The O-line paved the way for 247 team rushing yards and gave its returning quarterback the gift of time in the pocket.
Hills thanked them by going 21-of-27 through the air, setting career highs for completions and completion percentage. The senior captained four scoring drives of 75 yards or more, two of which traveled more than 90 yards.
Minter said the game plan didn’t explicitly mention keeping Hills away from all danger, but it floated around his subconscious.
“We don’t want him to take any hits at all,” the junior from Severna Park, Maryland, said.
Hills had taken his share of sacks earlier in the season, but his injuries came from running the ball trying to gain extra yardage. The commonalities in the plays that sidelined him forced him to rethink his playing style.
“The coaches have always told me since day one, ‘Hey, protect yourself. Slide when you get an opportunity to or get out of bounds,’” Hills said. “And it’s something I kind of just shrugged off, like, ‘Ok, I’m gonna go out there and try to run someone over.’ But it’s definitely a wakeup call, missing a game and being injured.”
Hills rushed seven times for 20 yards and stayed out of trouble. On one third down, he took a wide angle picking up a first and beat a defender to the sideline, avoiding a hit.
Maybe two weeks ago, he would have tried to bruise his way through the opponent to move the chains. But if one play isn’t enough evidence to suggest the senior has rethought his approach, consider his advice to his freshman backup Tyrrell Pigrome, who kept the ball 25 times for 71 rushing yards last week.
“After his Minnesota game, I told him, ‘Hey man, you gotta start sliding,’” Hills recalled. “The stuff starts hurting eventually.”
Staying healthy isn’t often on lists of the most fun aspects of football, but it certainly enables a player to enjoy the rest of the list. Hills was unscathed against Michigan State, and in a tightly contested fourth quarter, one of his linemen approached him on the sideline.
“We all had smiles on our face at that point in time, we were just having so much fun,” Hills said. “Brendan Moore came up to me, he’s like, “This is the [most fun] I’ve had in a long time.”
Edited by Max Marcilla