COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- With all the talk about Maryland’s football future, there are a lot of Terrapins taking a long look back this week.
Fourteen seniors will run out on Capital One Field at Byrd Stadium for the final time this Saturday at noonagainst Indiana. They and everyone else in the program want to send them off with a great effort, turn the Terrapin season around and then let the focus shift to the future.
“The focus on Senior Day is always on the seniors going out on the right note,” said senior safety A.J. Hendy of the central theme out of the Gossett Team House this week. “At the end of the day it’s just about being a competitor, going out there and being competitive whether we’re 2-8 or 8-2.”
Unfortunately, the Terrapins are 2-8 (0-6 in the Big Ten), and riding a seven-game losing streak that they are desperately hoping to snap Saturday at home. And here comes Indiana (4-6, 0-6), on a six-game skid.
Something’s got to give in a battle of the moveable object and resistible force.
“This is a big week for us with (14) seniors playing their last game in Byrd Stadium,” said interim head coach Mike Locksley. “(Indiana) is coming off a tough loss at Michigan. They’re still battling for bowl eligibility so we expect to get their best.”
“They’re a good team, been in an awful lot of good games with a lot of tough teams just like us,” said junior receiver Amba Etta-Tawo, coming off a five-catch effort against Michigan State. “It’s going to be a dogfight.”
The priorities for Maryland, other than sending off the seniors, are consistency on offense, beginning with hanging onto the ball; continuing that improving defensive effort and rediscovering the kicking game.
Incidentally, freshman Nicolas Pritchard was back atop the depth chart at punter after his awful 2-punts-for-21.5-yards-average Saturday. Locksley said he and redshirt freshman Lee Shrader both had “the yips.” Shrader came on after an 11-yard punt, and uncorked a 19-yarder. Redshirt sophomore Adam Greene will continue to handled the kicking chores, too, Brad Craddock still sidelined with his broken wrist.
Of Hoosiers & Hanging On To The Ball
Hendy, like the other Terrapins, saw the Hoosiers’ 48-41 double overtime loss to No. 14 Michigan, and came away impressed. “I see a good running game, a very balanced attack, a good quarterback,” he said. “They have a really good offense but I’m not concerned (about any one aspect). We’re preparing like any other week.”
It’s the other side of the ball where Maryland might have its most inviting matchup. The Hoosiers are last in FBS, allowing 341.0 yards passing per game, and while Maryland hasn’t set the world on fire heaving the pigskin, the Terrapins do have some weapons, a wide-open approach and the experience of hard knocks so far.
“The passing game starts with taking care of the football, not having any turnovers,” said Etta-Tawo of a Terrapin trip-up this season. “Going through our reads, receivers running good routes, offensive line holding up. It’s a group thing, not individual. If we all work together, we’ll do well.”
So far, it hasn’t worked like that, though, the passing game incomplete. Maryland had five turnovers last week, including three more interceptions. The Terrapins’ 28 interceptions thrown this year far and away lead the nation, and Maryland is 126th of 127 FBS teams in turnover margin at -19.
“Coach Locksley talked about putting that behind us, work toward the next thing and don’t put too much into that,” said Etta-Tawo. “Go out there and have fun. Don’t think about going out there and missing an assignment or fumbling. Just go out and have fun and take care of the football. It’s attention to detail.”
Locksley echoed the same sentiment on broader scale at his weekly press conference. “We’ve had opportunities where we’ve been competitive in games against good teams, but like I’ve said before, good teams don’t beat themselves and we’re a team that continues to do that on the offensive side of the ball the last few weeks. We’ve got to get that corrected.”
Maryland has thrown multiple interceptions in every game this season except the season-opener against Richmond, and the best part of the attack has been Perry Hills pulling it down and running. He had a streak of three straight 100-yard rushing games before running into Wisconsin and Michigan State.
The offensive ground game has shown signs of life with Hills at the helm in the read option, but now Hills will be called upon to make more passing plays this week. Look for Maryland to get the ball out quickly to the wide receivers and give them a chance to create. Michigan State put the clamps on Will Likely last week so look for some new wrinkles for him, too.
The Terrapins will be without Wes Brown, who had just moved ahead of Brandon Ross on the depth chart at running back last week. Brown was suspended Monday for a violation of the University’s student-athlete code. Locksley would not elaborate at Tuesday’s press conference.
Ross has 20 yards on eight carries the last two games, and has hopefully learned his lesson about pass-blocking, a negligent part of his game against Wisconsin that got him benched.
Hendy Has a Handle on Things
The last line of defense in the Maryland secondary, Hendy has perhaps one of the best views on the field for the Terrapins.
The redshirt senior also has a great overview thanks to his previous four years of experience, and he was on hand at Maryland’s weekly Tuesday press conference and shared some well-considered thoughts. He and 13 other seniors are playing their final home game Saturday.
As the clock ticks down on Hendy and his senior teammates, Hendy looked back and looked ahead at the program he has been such a part of the last four years. First, about this disappointing season: “It’s not so much what has happened to us but what we’ve done to ourselves. If we can put it all together this week, hopefully we’ll come out on the right end.”
Hendy has been part of a much better defense of late. Maryland held high-octane Michigan State to just 121 yards passing last week, but saw Sparty pound them with 41 rushing attempts for 141 yards. Only 3.7 yards a pop, but enough to best the Terrapins on a day the offense could never shift into gear in a 24-7 loss.
“I think we’re in a good position to go out and make this happen,” he said of Maryland breaking through with a win this week.
As for looking further ahead, Hendy was also optimistic. “We’re in a great position,” he said of the football program. “We’ve got a lot of young guys that have played and played well, stepped up in big moments. I think the team’s in great hands moving forward.”
Locksley talked effusively about he leadership this year. “I commend those guys for their leadership. We have a leadership council that is kind of the government of our team that carries the message throughout the team, but the seniors in particular, those guys have done a tremendous job, especially with the adversity we faced at midseason.
“Those guys have shown up with a blue-collar mentality. They’ve come to work every day and I think the younger players have learned by their example. Those guys, I take my hat off to them. They’ve fought through a tough year and continue to fight. It motivates me as a coach and I know our staff is motivated, too. I’ve been on some really bad teams, a few of them here in the late 90s, when they didn’t always show up late in the year. These guys continue to show up so we’ll continue to coach them until we finish it up.”
Those seniors are defensive backs Hendy, Sean Davis, Anthony Nixon, Alvin Hill; kicker Brad Craddock; quarterbacks Daxx Garman and Dexter Foreman; linebackers Jefferson Ashiru and Avery Thompson, offensive lineman Evan Mulrooney, Ryan Doyle, Stephen Grommer and Andrew Zeller, and running back Brandon Ross.
Junior defensive end Yannick Ngakoue has 12.5 sacks this season, just a half sack away from the Maryland single season record of 13, held by Mark Duda (1982) and Bruce Palmer (1978).
Ngakoue was credited with 1.5 sacks at Michigan State, and is currently second in the nation behind only Carl Nassib’s 15.5 quarterback traps for Penn State.
But what makes the 6-2, 255-pound Tasmanian Devil so good off the edge?
We asked Damian Prince, the right tackle that gets all he wants to see of Ngakoue most days in practice. “What makes him so good is you don’t know what he’s going to do. He can speed (rush) you. He can power. He can counter. He can go inside. He has awesome moves so you just have to play true to your technique because as soon as you start guessing, he’s going to do the opposite of what you thought he was going to do.”
As a team, Maryland is sixth in the nation with 34 sacks, and they’ve been more aggressive since the coaching change. With just two sacks at Michigan State, that broke a string of three consecutive games under Locksley with four sacks each contest. It should be noted, though, that Maryland was so ferocious, they knocked quarterback Connor Cook out of the game twice.
“The day I was named the interim coach, I met with (defensive coordinator) Keith (Dudzinski) and told him I wanted to be really aggressive in all three phases,” said Locksley. “I told him I didn’t want to play conservatively on defense. He has had a background coaching with Don Brown, and I told him I’d like to see some of the stuff he did with (former Terps d-coordinator) Don Brown, loading the box up, the things that give us trouble when you bring ‘Zero’ pressures and force offenses to constrict their game-plan. Our defense loves to play that way.”
Maryland’s veteran secondary, particularly corners Likely and Sean Davis, is a key in allowing the Terrapins to play that way. “They’ve been playing very well,” said Locksley of the defense. “I don’t look at it so much as taking chances as playing aggressive.”
Davis just Tuesday accepted an invitation to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, on Jan. 30. He has 300 career tackles and is second in the nation with five forced fumbles.
The Last Word
“If you look at how we’ve played a tough schedule it hasn’t just been blowouts,” said Locksley. “Our guys have competed and we’ve had opportunities, and what we’ve got to do is mature as a team and take advantage of the opportunities that we’ve created. Be more effective on the offensive side of the ball and in the kicking game, and then our defense maintain the consistency at which they’ve played.”
Prince talked about some of those things, too, in looking ahead. “You always want to get better, be better,” he said. “A lot of the young guys were talking and what we said is that we have to do everything in our power so that next year this doesn’t happen again.”