COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- The 18th-ranked Ohio State is headed to College Park and now we know the first play Maryland is running this week.
It’s the quarterback sneak. Maryland coach Randy Edsall has no intention of telling anyone, least of all the 3-1, new Big Ten East Division rival Buckeyes who will be under center Saturday at noon when Capital One Field at Byrd Stadium hosts one of the biggest games in years.
“Find out on game day,” said the coach when asked point blank whether senior C.J. Brown or backup Caleb Rowe would be behind center. There’s a question because Brown injured his left wrist just before halftime in the impressive 37-15 win at Indiana, and when Rowe came in the Terrapins didn’t miss a beat.
There was a lot of feel-good around that first Big Ten game, but as is the nature of this demanding league, Maryland (4-1, 1-0) faces an even bigger test this week in meeting storied Ohio State for the first time ever.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity, a tremendous challenge,” said Edsall, who has seen his team play their best the past two weeks on the road.
In fact, the Terrapins have averaged 36 points the last three games against West Virginia, Syracuse and Indiana, and have scored the third most points (184) in the Big Ten this season.
That said, and the questions at quarterback this week, bring it all back to the defense which seemed to find itself at Indiana, holding the Hoosiers to season lows in points (15) and total yardage (332), literally getting a grip on national rushing leader Tevin Coleman and holding him 104.3 yards below his season average and to a season-low 122 yards.
That was one week removed from Syracuse pounding out a season-high 370 yards rushing against Maryland, and just two weeks out from West Virginia rolling up 511 yards passing.
So what happened heading to the Heartland to meet Indiana?
“We were able to make some changes, we had to make some adjustments,” said senior nose tackle Darius Kilgo. “Going into the Indiana game, we had to fit gaps better (against the run), just guys knowing their assignments and starting to build confidence, things like that.”
Edsall said Sept. 28 he thought having senior inside linebackers Cole Farrand and L.A. Goree starting alongside each other for just the second time this season (because of injuries) was a key. That gave Maryland five senior starters in the front seven and six when weakside linebacker Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil entered the game, back from his nagging foot injury.
The defense worked the way it was supposed to, said Kilgo, who has been playing at a high level with nine tackles the last three games. Perhaps Maryland’s defensive success was best reflected in how many tackles Farrand had – 19. With the front three taking on blockers and “fitting” those gaps, Farrand, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week and Goree, with nine tackles, were free to seek and destroy.
“When you’ve got two veterans like them back there that have played a lot, you have a lot of confidence,” said Kilgo. “The linebackers control the defense and they’re out their communicating with us and the safeties, and when we’re clicking we’re making plays.”
Kilgo is literally a big part of that success. At 6-3, 310 pounds, he is the focal point of that 3-4 defense, stuffing the middle and making things easier for teammates. He was alternating at the spot with fellow senior Keith Bowers to start the season but Quinton Jefferson’s season-ending knee injury necessitated moving Bowers back to end two weeks ago. Bowers and Kilgo have both responded to the challenge.
“(Kilgo) has been doing a great job just clogging the run up,” said Cudjoe-Virgil. “He has been really consistent in terms of holding defensive linemen and getting them off the linebackers. It definitely makes it easier as a pass rusher because two linemen have to key on him because of his ability to stop the run and his ability to rush the passer.”
Grin and Get After Barrett
And there’s a key component to keep an eye on this Saturday: Can the Terrapins put pressure on redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett, the man charged with replacing injured Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller.
Barrett has been up to the challenge most weekends. He has a career best 330 yards passing and 409 total yards last Saturday in a 50-28 win over Cincinnati, the second straight weekend the Buckeyes bullied an in-state school following the 66-0 drubbing of Kent State.
On the season Barrett has completed 63.6 percent of his passes, has 13 touchdowns and just five interceptions, and is eighth nationally with a 178.6 passing efficiency.
But boil it down a little more and Ohio State’s season breaks down like this – Barrett has been sacked just twice and has just two interceptions in OSU’s three wins. In the 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech on Sept. 6, the Hokies dropped him seven times and picked off three passes.
The Terrapin defense, while giving a lot of ground earlier this year, have also proven adept at plucking the pigskin from opponents. Maryland is third in the Big Ten and 14th nationally with 11 takeaways this season, six interceptions and five fumble recoveries.
They’ve also notched 11 sacks and have a growing reputation as a unit that can bring heat on quarterbacks. The Ohio State quarterback, though, presents some challenges.
“Watching film, (Barrett) has awareness, he’s able to feel when he has pressure,” said Kilgo. “He can make crazy plays with his feet so one thing we’re going to have to do is contain him in the pocket. He looks great, like an older guy with experience.”
The Ohio State offensive line, while talented, can’t match Maryland’s experience up front. Three of the five Buckeye starters made their first starts this season and another had just one start prior.
Looking at the offense, Edsall said, “They’ve gotten better from the first game now to the fifth game, J.T. Barrett is playing at a very high level. They’ve got really good skill guys. Their offensive line is coming along because they were very young.”
Kilgo talked about Ohio State’s physicality and how they come off the ball well but he likes that the Buckeyes haven’t shown much that he and his teammates haven’t already seen this season. And as always, stopping the run is Maryland’s first priority.
“We just want to fly to the ball and make plays,” Kilgo said. “If we do that, we’ll be a pretty good defense. We’re not going to change anything this week. We’re going to go out there and play our defense.”
No, No, NOT Like Florida State Last Year
A lot of folks are comparing 4-1 Maryland, just now receiving votes in the Top 25, to 4-0 Maryland last year when the Terps popped into the national polls at No. 25 and promptly took to Tallahassee and laid a 63-0 egg on the big stage.
“We learned that just as easily as you can have success, it can be taken away that quickly,” said Terrapin tailback Brandon Ross. “You can never really get too high. You have to take it one game at a time, treat every opponent the same. It’s really about preparation, how you practice is how you play.”
Ross and some of the other Terps used the same word describe that day at FSU – “humbling.” He added that the Terrapins have already had their “learning experience” game this year, the heartbreaking 40-37 loss to West Virginia at the final gun.
“We just have to keep coming out this week and having good, hard practices,” said Ross, who has scored on screen passes from distance the last two games. “The reason we see this as a big game is because they’re in our division and we want to stay undefeated in the conference.”
Ross may have a lot to say about that lofty goal. The Terps’ starting tailback, he has turned in big scoring plays each of the last two weeks – a 90-yard screen pass at Syracuse and a 36-yarder at Indiana. Big plays like that are another reason it’s hard to compare last year’s offense with this year.
These Terrapins seem capable of striking at any time from anywhere. “We’ve got a lot of guys that can turn a 5-yard gain into an 80- or 90-yard gain,” said Ross. “We’ve got a lot of confidence that we can make plays.”
The way the Terrapins have been playing lately, nobody has made plays like this since maybe Shakespeare.
“We’re starting get the hang of things,” said right tackle Michael Dunn. “We’re still not where we need to be but the play-calling has been great. We’re just going out there and doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”
Three different Terrapins have a running play of 20 yards or more and eight different Terps have a reception of 20 yards or more, and it’s not even halfway through the season.
“The reason you get big plays is because everybody is doing their jobs,” said Edsall. “And you’ve usually got to get blocks downfield, and we’ve done that. And depending on what people do to you defensively, you have to get the right reads and quarterbacks have to deliver the ball where it should go. It’s a combination of everybody.”
Edsall pointed to Ross’ screen for a score last week. Coming out of the backfield, he got great blocks from Dunn, guard Silvano Altamirano and wide receiver Deon Long “getting in the way.” He said the skill comes in making those plays and Ross making a nice read and getting down the sideline for the score.
If everybody does their job, added Edsall, “on any given play we have the ability to make those plays.”
It won’t be easy this week against an Ohio State defense 22nd in the nation, allowing just 315.5 yards per game. The Buckeyes give up 20 points per contest, and Maryland is 31st nationally in that category, just ahead of Ohio State at 19.8 points per game allowed.
“They’re very good up front,” said Ross, who has started his film work. “They’re very fast. They’re a team that moves quickly. We can’t turn over the football.”
And Ohio State will obviously have to prepare for two quarterbacks this week, two quarterbacks that do different things. Brown is fifth in the conference, averaging 252.4 total yards but he gets a good chunk (53.2 yards) of that on the ground where he makes the read-option hum. He was having his best passing day last week before he was injured.
Rowe, he of the NFL Films spirals and Popeye arm, hit 12-of-18 for 198 yards and two touchdowns in his second half cameo. He was 7-of-15 for 75 yards and a score in the opener against FIU, and there’s enough film of him out there to give defensive coordinators sleepless nights.
There won’t be a whole lot of sleeping on campus Saturday if the Terrapins pull this one off but for now, the team isn’t going to get carried away.
“It’s going to be fun to play against Ohio State but it’s really just another game,” said Kilgo. ‘We want to go out and get a win. We don’t want to get too distracted or too focused on other things.”
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