COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- The bye week couldn’t have come at a more ideal team for Maryland’s defense, a unit pillaged by injuries and coming off a less-than-inspiring 52-24 home defeat against Ohio State. The Terps, to a man, preach the next-man-up manta -- particularly on a unit that’s more or less carried the team and at times been downright dominant under coordinator Brian Stewart.
But Oct. 4 the No. 20 Buckeyes rolled up 533 total yards -- 269 rushing -- and controlled the clock to the tune of almost 37 minutes. That outing could have been discounted had it been a one-week aberration, but Maryland has now had subpar defensive efforts in half its games this year, with the Indiana victory being the only true standout FBS performance. Now the Terps will have the task of replicating the IU effort against a gritty Iowa squad that just rolled up 426 yards in a 49-25 victory against the Hoosiers.
“Our pride isn’t hurt -- we’re not going to take that [mindset],” said linebacker L.A. Goree, who is tied for second on the team with 52 tackles, to go along with two tackles for loss. “Yeah, we’ve given up some yards, and that’s hard for us, but at the end of the day we still have a winning record.”
That’s true, but it’s hard to completely discount the numbers. The Terps are ranked 99th nationally in total defense (451.2 yards allowed per game), 104th in rush defense (207.2 yards allowed per game) and 65th in points allowed per (25.2). All three averages sit in the bottom half of the FBS, while the former two are in the bottom third.
“We have good games and we have bad games. I don’t think we’re as consistent as we need to be if we want to go to a Big Ten bowl game,” Goree said. “The Syracuse game, Ohio State game, those were bad games, but we played better against Indiana. So we’ve played good, we’ve played bad, but overall we need to be more consistent.
“The plays [Ohio State] got positive yards on, we didn’t execute the way we should have. It’s all about execution. I don’t think Iowa is going to run the same type of option plays that [OSU] ran, but we have to be more consistent.”
Fellow linebacker Yannick Ngakoue agreed with Goree. The sophomore pass rusher said there needs to be 100 percent effort on every play, and the defense in general has to maintain its discipline. Especially the run defense, which has been gouged on more than one occasion this year.
“I wouldn’t say [the run defense] is a problem … but 11 guys have to be running to the ball, stay in your gaps, know your reads,” said Ngakoue, who has 19 stops, a Big Ten-high 8.5 tackles for loss (he brushed off his league-leading total when reporters broached the subject) and three sacks, to go along with four pass breakups/defenses.
The Terps may not be particularly pleased with their defense so far, but head coach Randy Edsall pointed out that, other than the Ohio State bout, Maryland has done well adhering to the bend-but-don’t break principle. OSU and WVU combined to score 92 points against UMD, but not one of Indiana, Syracuse, South Florida and James Madison managed more than 20.
But Edsall knows there aren’t any JMU’s (no offense to the Dukes) on the latter half of Maryland’s Big Ten schedule. To hang with the Wisconsins, Michigan States and Michigans of the world, the Terps need their defense to step up its game.
“When you give up yards it’s usually because people aren’t executing and guys aren’t fulfilling their responsibilities the way they’re supposed to. It might be a missed gap, a missed tackle -- it’s a combination of everybody not doing the things you need to do, and those are the things we’re working on,” Edsall said. “Guys have to understand what their job is and continue to do their job. And if you can get everybody doing their job to the best of their abilities, you have a lot more opportunities for success. Guys are really working hard, doing things the right way. They don’t like giving up the yards.”
Edsall and Co. aren’t going to make excuses, but the Terps did suffer a rash of injuries that plagued the linebacker core in particular. Starting inside linebacker Cole Farrand was out two games, outside linebacker Yannick Cudjoe-Virgil didn’t suit up in the season’s first half, Goree missed a game, Matt Robinson hasn’t been active for a couple weeks, Alex Twine has missed time, and Cavon Walker is out for the year. Not to mention sophomore Abner Logan, one of the team’s more effective backups, hasn’t played a down yet due to a suspension.
Thank you, bye week.
Farrand and Cudjoe-Virgil were already back in action against OSU, but the extra week off should have allowed Twine and Robinson enough time to recover. Plus Edsall said Logan has been reinstated, though he wouldn’t let on what the sophomore backer’s role will be against Iowa.
"It’s big to have the guys out there you started with, who you trust, who you’ve been in the program the longest with,” Goree said. “With a guy like Matt, a lot of guys trust him. He’s very cerebral, and being a [former] safety, he’s really good on pass plays and how much area he can cover. It’s comforting having him out there, knowing he has your back.”
"That's huge when you can keep the nucleus of your linebacker core together," defensive coordinator Brian Stewart said. "In a defense that's been run on, that [having guys back] helps. That [nucleus] was one of the things that helped us in the past... the linebackers had a lot of depth and we were able to keep guys healthy. This year we've had to play a lot of young guys, and while we're happy with their development, we're glad to have [Robinson, Logan, etc.] back."
Ngakoue then chimed in about Logan’s much-anticipated return:
“He’s a great linebacker, a hard worker, great team player and he’s definitely going to be a boost for our defense,” he said.
Besides resting up and spending a few days with their families, both Goree and Ngakoue said the defense (and, really, the whole team) focused mainly on fundamentals. Ngakoue said outside linebackers’ coach Lyndon Johnson went over different hand placement, leverage and footwork drills, while Goree said inside linebackers’ coach Keith Dudzinski did something similar.
“The bye week is a good time to work on … things you need to touch up during the season, just fundamentals and perfecting things like that,” said Goree, who, like Ngakoue, mentioned he wanted to watch his high school team in action last weekend but was unable to (Goree attended Flowers HS in Springdale, Md., and Ngakoue went to Friendship Collegiate in D.C.). “Some young guys got in some work too, and that was good.”
On Oct. 18 they’ll all go to work against an Iowa offense that’s still working through its share of issues. Sure, the Hawkeyes rushed for 207 and passed for 219 against IU last week, but the Hoosiers won’t exactly remind anyone of the Purple People Eaters.
Iowa is still putting up 26.3 points per game, but it is ranked 89th in total offense at 381.3 yards per game (151.3 rushing yards per, 230 passing yards per). The Hawkeyes are generally known as a running team with a bevy of big ‘ol offensive linemen. This year, though they boast the beef, they are only picking up 3.8 yards per carry.
Even so, Maryland’s defense knows it’s going to have its hands full against the likes of Brandon Scherff, an NFL-caliber left tackle, right tackle Andrew Donnal, and steady center Austin Blythe.
“[The Iowa O-line is] definitely one of the best we’ve faced,” Ngakoue said. “They’re a big line, very physical. They’re pretty athletic -- some guys are -- but they have a lot of power as well. So I feel like we have to be disciplined, have low pad level and just take on blocks.
“Iowa’s offensive line is pretty disciplined and they get key blocks to help out their running backs. I feel like this is going to be a big challenge for us this week … going against the run.”
Ngakoue said Iowa is similar to what Maryland saw against Boston College last year in that both teams emphasize power running, and use said ground attack to set up the play-action. But while Goree said there are some comparisons, the Hawkeyes have a different scheme and style than the Eagles did.
“I see a traditional pro-style, more like what you would see in the NFL. With how [Iowa] uses their backs, they do some screens, play-action, similar types of things that you’d see in the NFL,” Goree said. “But with them being so massive [up font], it kind of allows us to do some other things with our range. Like, we can be more finesse [to run around them] and things like that.”
Regardless of how they get it done, Goree and the UMD defense are looking to reassert itself.
And if not, well, as long as the Terps keep getting “W’s,” there’s little to complain about.
“The mindset is to have energy, go out and have fun, be our brothers’ keeper and go 100 percent for the next man,” Ngakoue said. “Basically [we] just [have] to do what it takes to win these last six games.”
Rested Terps Defense Looks To Reassert Itself
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