Despite Injuries, Defense Returning to Form
COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Perhaps it was fitting that Maryland had its second bye the week of Halloween, what with the defense reverting to its downright deadly (well, almost) early-season form. OK, so the Terps (5-3) let up 40 points in a 40-27 loss to Clemson two weeks ago, but considering the Tigers had just 19 points through three quarters, allowing UMD to stick within one score of the high-powered juggernauts, it wasn't a subpar effort.
"We knew we had to come out and be physical," senior defensive end Zeke Riser said. "The biggest thing was they were ranked No. 9 so our mindset was everyone was expecting us to lose and not play well. So we had nothing to lose. We just had to go out there, have a bunch of energy and play as physical as possible."
Said junior safety A.J. Hendy: "I don't want to say [the Clemson game] was a confidence booster because we didn't win the game. But getting turnovers, being aggressive, that was good to see. Hopefully we can continue that."
Though they weren't on the practice field last week, both Hendy and Riser spent most of the bye resting, studying and watching video -- the former heading to the training room to deal with bumps and bruises while the latter briefly visited his sister in Annapolis before retiring to the film room.
That said, both delved into the holiday spirit Oct. 31, allowing themselves to have a brief respite. Hendy dressed up as a Mexican Shepherd, complete with a bushy mustache and sombrero, while Riser went all out and imitated a cowboy one night and a referee (though he insisted not a Dallas Cowboys referee) the next.
"It was good to get away for a little bit," Hendy said. "Just have some fun before the final stretch."
Now the goal is to continue striking fear in opposing offenses during the last third of the season. Two weeks after the Clemson effort, the Terps' defense is looking to carry it right through Syracuse this Saturday in order to gain elusive win No. 6, which would make them bowl eligible for the first time in three years.
"We're looking to play physical, play disciplined and just make plays," Hendy said. "As a defense I think we're still getting better. I think we're doing some of the things we were doing the first four games of the season in terms of getting turnovers, staying aggressive. Right now we're rising, still getting better."
The Maryland defense has undergone a makeover since those initial four games Hendy mentioned. The team's top two cornerbacks, Dexter McDougle (out for the season and J.J. Johnson (out for at least another week), are still MIA; top rush linebacker Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil suffered a season-ending injury; linebackers Matt Robinson and Alex Twine have been banged up and missed time; linebacker L.A. Goree and safety Anthony Nixon were out for the Clemson game; and Riser missed the season's first third.
Add it all up and it's been a weekly reshuffling for defensive coordinator Brian Stewart. But the second bye week allowed several of those aforementioned players to heal up, while giving the defense's newcomers more time to study and adjust.
"We have a lot of new pieces with the injuries, but we're gelling," Hendy said. "We're gelling with each other, but that takes time. It's going to take more time to get where we want to be.
"The secondary [with new corners Will Likely and Isaac Goins], we're coming together. We're getting communication together and that takes time too. We're still getting to the point where [the communication] is second nature."
Riser, a promising transfer from Houston, knows all about gelling and getting back into the flow. He suffered an ankle injury during the preseason that forced him into a walking boot and didn't return until Maryland played Florida State, a 63-0 drubbing that he'd just as soon forget.
"There was definitely that rust when I first got back out there," Riser said. ‘I really wasn't sure that I was 100 percent ready to play. But I definitely feel better now, more comfortable now and the way it's been going."
For Riser, this final stretch represents the final third of three four-week seasons. He mentioned how the Terps went 4-0 during the first four games, 1-3 the next quartet and now have to finish strong in order to reach postseason play.
"Once you go 1-3, that section of the schedule is over," Riser said. "Now it's time for a fresh start."
Said Hendy: "At this point, our last four games, we're looking to finish strong. But we still have things to build off of that happened [earlier during the year]."
Namely, that last game against Clemson, the 21 fourth-quarter points notwithstanding. Not only did Maryland contain Clemson for the majority of the game, but the Terps' defense also forced three turnovers after going through a prolonged three-game drought without one. If UMD can continue forcing mistakes, well, that could be a scary proposition for its final four foes.
"Last game we took advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves to us," Hendy said. "But we can force turnovers every week. We went through a bit of a slump, but we can return to what we had been doing [during the season's first four games. We can … take it into these last four games."
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