COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Maryland’s opening drive against Penn State Oct. 8 all but set the tone for how the afternoon would unfold in State College, Pa. Senior quarterback Perry Hills dropped back twice on that initial three-and-out, first taking a sack from Garrett Sickels and then absorbing another from Evan Schwan. Hills would be sacked twice more and take numerous hits during the Terps’ next six drives before he finally succumbed to a right-shoulder injury at the end of the first half.
Being the hardscrabble competitor he is, Hills, who also suffered a right-shoulder ailment earlier during the season at UCF, tried to “tough it out.” But the coaching staff took precaution and elected to play backup Ty Pigrome the entire second half.
“We’ve got to do a better job protecting [Hills],” head coach D.J. Durkin said Oct. 11. “Some of those hits were in the pocket, and we have to do a better job with protection and getting the ball down the field, to the point where he’s not taking those hits.”
The Penn State debacle was no one-game aberration, however. The Maryland offensive line has surrendered a Big Ten-high 17 sacks in five games, to go along with too many pressures to count.
Offensive coordinator Walt Bell noted the issue earlier this year as part of an explanation about Maryland’s lack of a vertical passing game. Durkin furthered the point during his press conference Oct. 11.
“It’s hard to put a finger on one thing,” he said. “One time it’s a breakdown and a guy gets beat. Another time we miss an assignment and all of a sudden a guy is running free. Another time it’s the quarterback doesn’t have his eye in the right place. Those are all things you work through in a season … and we have to get better at.”
Starting center Brendan Moore said it’s up to the unit to gel and keep the quarterback clean. He placed no blame on line coach Dave Borbely or the rest of the staff, harping on the point it’s the players responsibility to solve the pass-pro problem.
“The coaches do a great job getting us reps in practice and getting us ready,” Moore said.
That may be true, but the Terps have rotated through, and shifted around, a number of offensive linemen through five games. The starters are, from left to right, Mike Dunn; Mike Minter; Moore; Mo Shelton; and Damian Prince. But Derwin Gray sees time at tackle, Terrance Davis gets burn at guard, Prince has moved from right tackle to right guard, and Shelton has flipped from right guard to right tackle. Even Moore, a stalwart at center, has moved over to guard with backup Joe Marchese getting a series or two snapping the ball.
“Our chemistry really is not affected,” said Moore, refusing to make excuses. “We all practice together, are in meetings together and do the same things. Timing might be a little different from guy to guy, but it’s really not that hard to get chemistry with everyone. It’s about repetition. The coaches do a great job in practice getting reps for everyone, so we all know each others’ mannerisms.
“There are minor timing difference with my footwork, and their [the backup linemen’s] tendencies are a little different. But we’re running the same scheme either way. It really doesn’t make that much of a difference. We trust people to do their job and execute no matter who is in the game.”
In particular, Moore praised the freshman Davis’ progress. The former DeMatha (Hyattsville, Md.) four-star All-American rotated in rather frequently Oct. 8 in Happy Valley.
“Terrance came in and his feet were already very, very good. But he’s gotten a lot better each week and you definitely see his development,” Moore said. “It’s good to see a freshman get some playing time and do well, and just gain experience.”
So, if the rotation isn’t a concern, what about the fact the Terps have so many different linemen at various stages of experience and development? There’s one lone veteran in Dunn, hyped youngsters like Prince and Gray, former walk-ons like Minter and Shelton, and a just-emerging stud in Moore.
“We are a young group, and we do have a lot of diversity in the room in terms of [star talent], but at the end of the day we’re there to protect; run block; and run our scheme,” said Moore, who also noted there’s little difference when blocking for either Hills or Pigrome. “That’s really it. … We just have to get back to basics, get ready for next week and do what we do best.”
There’s also the rather obvious reality that the Terps have run the ball more than twice as much as they’ve thrown it. Thus, the Maryland linemen haven’t been asked to pass protect nearly as much as they’ve been told to open holes.
Which is just fine considering UMD backs are averaging 274 rushing yards per and 6.1 yards per carry, statistics that rank second in the conference. Why throw when you can run opponents into the ground?
That’s a great philosophy … until you play Penn State, fall behind by three touchdowns, and need to catch up in a hurry.
“I feel part of our strength is we’ve been so effective running the ball, and part of our weakness is we’ve been so effective running the ball. So then it’s become a crutch for us,” Durkin said. “When you’re in a game and running the ball effectively, it’s hard to get away from that. … But when you need to throw the ball, we’re not as far along in our development in [pass protection]. … We have the right [linemen] out there, but we just have to do a better job all the way around.”
Maryland will attempt to take a step (kick slide?) in the right direction Oct. 15 against Minnesota, which won’t be an easy task. The statistics don’t tell the whole tale, as the Gophers’ main strength is a front seven filled with potent run stuffers and decent enough pass rushers.
In all likelihood, Minnesota will force the Terps to take a few shots down the field, meaning the offensive line must hold up for UMD to emerge victorious.
And for Hills to finish the game in one piece.
“The way Coach Durkin runs his program, there’s always a sense of urgency. There’s not an option. Everyone has refocused and we’re just trying to push forward,” Moore said. “[Minnesota has] very, very good linebackers and great linemen. But we’re going to play our game -- play with tempo, play with speed and try to get a ‘W.’”