Like the Fighting Irish defense of 2001, the Maryland Terrapins fielded a squad on the defensive side of the ball that had the ability to completely shutdown opposing offenses. The Terrapins allowed just 90.6 yards per game on the ground, got to the quarterback an ACC-leading 38 times, and ranked 30th nationally by giving up only 331.09 totals yards on average. Oddly enough, the Notre Dame defense was even better. The Irish surrendered just 305 total yards a game (14th in the country) to go along with yielding less than 20 points.
So how is it that Maryland strung together a remarkable 10-2 record and a trip to the Orange Bowl while the dominating Notre Dame defense was at home on New Year's Day after completing a disappointing 5-6 season? Offense. Maryland possessed an offense that always managed to stay on the field long enough to rest the defense and put up enough points to pull their own weight. The Irish, obviously, didn't.
And that's what it will come down to on Saturday night: can the Notre Dame offense score enough points to protect another outstanding defensive unit. They'll have to attempt to do it against an ultra-aggressive Maryland defense that showcases arguably the best defender in college football. Today we'll break down what the Fighting Irish players can expect to see from the Maryland defense and highlight where the Terrapins might be vulnerable.
The defensive turnaround from 2000 to 2001 by Ralph Friedgen and defensive coordinator Gary Blackney was astounding. Just look at the numbers. The 2000 Terrapin squad ranked 107th in the nation in total defense and gave up more than 2,000 rushing yards in one season. The 2001 version finished in the top-30 in total defense and allowed a remarkable 997 yards on the ground.
Not a bad reversal, eh?
The quick fix was a result of instituting a more aggressive style that allowed players to make plays, and nobody stepped up to make more of them than star senior middle linebacker E.J. Henderson. Coming into this season he is the best middle linebacker in the entire country, bar none, and it would have been hard to dispute his claim to that title last season. Henderson recorded 150 tackles, 103 of those being solo jobs, 6 sacks, and a school record 28 tackles for loss. He became the first Maryland Terrapin since NFL Hall of Famer Randy White to be named an AP first team All-American, along with being chosen the ACC Player and Defensive Player of the Year.
Henderson is the beginning and end on this defense and is a factor in every play he's on the field for. The only concern is how many plays E.J. will be able to withstand on Saturday in his first game since back surgery in April. The operation was serious enough to keep him out of spring practice, but Henderson was given full clearance for the fall and has been progressing well.
Henderson is joined at linebacker by rising star Leon Joe, who ranked fourth on the team with 76 stops. Joe, a junior, has great speed on the weak-side and is exceptional at dropping into coverage. Junior Leroy Ambush steps in at strong-side linebacker and will be asked to replace departed three-year starter Aaron Thompson. Ambush, another speedy ‘backer, and Joe provide great compliments to the hard-hitting Henderson. If Henderson is at full strength, this unit should be the gem of the defense.
The defensive line must replace it's best player in All-ACC tackle Charles Hill but has depth that can be rotated to help minimize the loss. Taking over for Hill is big sophomore Randy Starks (6-4, 299 lbs). Starks saw action in every game as a true freshman and registered 3.5 sacks in his backup role. C.J. Feidheim returns to man the nose tackle position, coming off a 36 tackle, 3-sack season. Senior defensive end Durrand Roundtree is not only the team's strongest player, but he's also their premier pass-rusher, having led the defensive line with 4.5 sacks last season. The hybrid end/linebacker position, or "Leo" as they call it, would have been held by the returning Mike Whaley had he not flunked out of school. The job now falls to sophomore Jamahl Cochran who played in 10 of 11 games as a freshman. Depth comes in the form of junior end Scott Smith, senior tackle William Shime, and sophomore end Jon Condo who combined to play in 25 games last season.
The line is less than spectacular but it's going to have to over-achieve, at least early in the season, to make up for losses sustained in the secondary. If they can't find a way to get into the pocket and disrupt the quarterback, it could leave a defensive backfield that returns just one starter exposed.
The three starters that the Terrapins lose in the secondary – strong safety Tony Jackson, free safety Randall Jones, and cornerback Tony Okanlawon – were All-ACC performers that combined for 15 interceptions and 166 tackles. It will be difficult to ask for anyone to step in and immediately replace that type of production, so the burden will be heavy on lone returning starter Curome Cox. Cox, a junior corner, picked off three balls last season and has developed into one of the best cover-men in the ACC.
But Cox is the only Terrapin in the secondary with regular starting experience at the school. Sophomore Dominique Foxworth will man the other corner position after seeing limited action in 2001 because he was redshirted for the majority of the season. After an onslaught of injuries late in the year, Foxworth was forced to break his redshirt and play immediately. Foxworth will be pushed to split time with senior Jamal Chance, who has also seen limited playing time. Junior Dennard Wilson shifts to strong safety after starting three games at cornerback last year and recording a sack and an interception. Wilson is quick, a heavy hitter, and has in-game experience, but the adjustment to the safety position could take time. If Wilson should falter, senior safety Tyrone Stewart played in every game last season and produced 2.5 sacks and a pick.
The talk of spring practice was junior transfer Madieu Williams. Williams played 20 games over two seasons at Towson University before coming to College Park last season and redshirting. Williams wowed coaches with his hard-hitting style and on-field savvy, churning out a performance that was impressive enough to earn him the starting free safety job. Williams' combination of good size (6-1, 193 lbs) and speed make him possibly the most promising in the secondary.
Comments: The Terrapins have to replace a plethora of players on this side of the ball. They return E.J. Henderson, in my mind the best defensive player in the nation, but they lose almost every other key player that helped make last season's Maryland defense a force. Their losses in the secondary are astronomical and are too much for even the great E.J. to make up for. After talking to Mike and hearing about the improvement of Carlyle Holiday under center, I think the key to this game could come down to the Irish offensive line. If they can give Holiday enough time to drop back and go to work on an adjusting secondary, we could see a breakout game from him.
Send any questions and comments to Dave Hicks - firstname.lastname@example.org