COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Earlier during the season, when Maryland’s rushing attack was gashing foes for more than 250 yards a game, UMD head coach D.J. Durkin asked, “Why pass?”
Well, now Maryland’s foes are asking the same question.
After holding relatively steady the first four weeks of the season, the Terps’ rush defense has been exposed, to say the least, as Big Ten play has worn on. After surrendering 414 rushing yards Oct. 29 (the most UMD has allowed since 1999), including three 100-yard individual rushers, against an Indiana team that entered the affair averaging less than 100 a night, UMD is now the FBS’ 109th-ranked rush defense. The Terps are allowing a tick over 220 rush yards per game, 4.80 yards per carry and have given up 15 total rushing touchdowns.
“We definitely should have won that game. Just looking at the film, guys doing their own thing, we have to get that corrected,” said senior defensive lineman Roman Braglio, who earned a personal foul for a late hit during the Indiana game. “That’s our task this week: sit down, focus and make sure everyone knows exactly what to do in the game plan.
“[The issues are] definitely correctable. Everything is correctable. Looking at the film, [Indiana] just caught us. It was not our best game to say the least. Coming out this week , we’re definitely going to improve. Sunday we all came in, watched film, and we’re going to correct our mistakes.”
The Terps’ defense, whether operating in a 4-2-5 or a 3-3-5 scheme, is struggling relying on its safeties and extra defensive backs in run support. Maryland lost starting safety Denzel Conyers and slot corner Will Likely for the season, and safety Darnell Savage for an extended period, all three of whom were at least decent tacklers. The second stringers, however, have been less than adequate, allowing yards after contact and/or failing to close quickly.
Moreover, junior Jermaine Carter, the supposed stalwart in Maryland’s linebacker corps, hasn’t been as effective as last season. He has been a tad slow reacting and has given up his share of leaky yards. Linebacker Shane Cockerille, meanwhile, has gotten “caught in the trash” of late, and depth backer Jalen Brooks didn’t take proper closing angles and missed a couple tackles against IU. Collectively, the group has not actively filled gaps and wrapped up like earlier during the campaign.
And then there’s the defensive line, which has been pushed off the ball three of the last four weeks. Braglio, Azubuike Ukandu and Kingsley Opara have shown flashes this season, but they’ve worn down against Big Ten offensive lines. The Terps lack depth up front, so when the latter three tire, opponents have taken advantage. Plus, Braglio and BUCKs Jesse Aniebonam; Melvin Keihn; and Chandler Burkett haven’t been consistent edge setters recently.
“We’re going to have to get good push up front, put them on the other side of the line of scrimmage, and get off blocks and make plays. It’s definitely going to start with the guys up front to stop the run,” said Braglio, who expressed frustration over Maryland’s inability to adjust to and contain Indiana’s Wildcat attack. “Everyone needs to not try to do something out of what they’re supposed to. Each player has a role within the defense, and you have to stay in that role. Say you’re a defensive lineman, you see a guy has the ball and you want to run upfield. But as soon as you run upfield, the guy keeps the ball and laterals it. So as long everyone does their job, controls the controllables … we’re a tough team to beat.”
It was evident Braglio was echoing his head coach. Durkin spent the majority of his Nov. 1 press conference harping on discipline and fundamentals.
“There’s a whole lot of things, some schematic, some fundamentally, some personnel wise – a lot of reasons for that,” Durkin said of the run defense issues. “We’ve studied hard, identified it, and what we have to do is get our players playing within the scheme. That’s come up a couple times this year -- as a young team, there’s a sense of panic when you get hit on a couple plays and things aren’t working, and then guys start doing their own thing. You can't function as a defense when you’re doing your own thing. That’s the learning process we’re going through… We’ve been very honest and straightforward about it, and we’re trying to get it corrected.
“The one way you improve is you keep working. That’s the one way I know how to get better and improve – you get back to work.”
It’ll be difficult to improve much against the second-ranked team in the country, however. Next up, Maryland has Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., the Wolverines featuring one of the nation’s best offensive lines and a dynamic playmaker in Jabril Peppers.
Containing UM is a daunting task for any foe, especially one whose rush defense has been sieve-like of late.
“We have an opportunity to knock off the No. 2 team in the country, and that’s our plan. We’re going to come back and play our defense, and we’re looking to stop them,” Braglio said. “If we come out pumped up, focused and really lock in on what we’re supposed to do, we really are a tough defense to run against.”