Maryland's Defensive Problem: Or, Why in the World are They on the Field So Much?

Maryland's defense gives up a lot of yards. It's over 375 a game, to be a little more precise. They've been outgained by three of their four opponents, including in the wins over Navy and FIU. And no, that's not a typo: Maryland was really outgained by FIU, of all teams. In total defense, Maryland's 80th in the country. Calling the Terps' defense below-par would be easy to do, given these numbers.

But that's really skirting the issue. See, Maryland's defense has not only given up a lot of yards, they've been on the field for a lot of plays. I mean a lot of plays: Maryland's opponents have been on the field for 331 plays this year, compared to Maryland's 213. Take out the Morgan State game, for obvious reasons, and it gets worse: 269 to 148. When you don't include Maryland's annual cupcake opponent, they're getting out-snapped of a ratio of almost 2:1.

It got so bad that Ralph Friedgen (jokingly, thank God) wished that Davin Meggett hadn't scored on a 76-yard touchdown late against FIU, and instead chewed up some more clock. When you're (jokingly) willing to take points off the board to give the defense a breather, it's bad.

That statistical deficiency leaks over into other parts of the game, notably the yardage that Maryland gives up. For example, Maryland's been outgained by their opponents on the season by about 250 yards (or a little over 50 yards a game) which would point to both a poor defense and offense. But it's a lot more accurate to look at the yards per play: Maryland averages a decent 6.0 yards per play offensively, and give up to opponents just 4.56 yards per play.

 

That's a red flag; if both the offense and defense are doing their job on paper, but not reaping the rewards, there can only be bad things happening. There's some wasted effort in there somewhere, and wasted effort rarely goes over well in high-major football.

 

On the other hand, even though Maryland's giving up significantly more yards, their defense isn't really as bad as it seems. If they could just find a way to, oh, not give opponents twice as many snaps, they'd actually be pretty good.

So then, why is Maryland's defense on the field so much and their offense on the field so little?

Well, one explanation is that the offense is "efficient", which is euphemistic, and both good and bad. Maryland has four touchdowns that came from over 60 yards, which are almost always quick strike scores. The past two weeks, the average yardage on Maryland's TDs is a ridiculous 55 yards.

While that means that Maryland has big play potential, which is great, it also means there's very little in the way of sustained drives. Maryland's had three drives the entire year that took up 4 minutes of clock; their opponents have had nine, for comparison. The ratio is almost the same for 3 minute drives: 5 to 14. And Maryland's had exactly one five-minute drive all year, which would classify as certifiably soul-sucking, and it came at exactly the wrong time: when they were down two scores to West Virginia. Navy had two against MD alone; West Virginia had one to answer Maryland's.

That also works with plays, if'n you were wondering: Maryland's had one drive in the double-digit of plays all year, and their opponents have nine. If you want to boil down the biggest problem in plays, it's that previous sentence right there. I'll even say it again: Maryland's had one drive in the double-digit of plays all year, and their opponents have nine.

Unsurprisingly, that puts Maryland at the bottom of the barrel in the nation in time of possession, in front of only Notre Dame, Texas Tech, Houston, Oregon State, and Middle Tennessee. All of them, to some extent, run a fast-paced spread offense, so getting rid of the ball is supposed to happen. That's not the case for Maryland, which is more pro-style.

Let's not absolve the defense, though. One of the most damning statistics is Maryland's defensive third down conversion rate. It's nearly as bad as Maryland's time of possession, coming in at 109th in the country: opponents convert nearly half of the third downs they face against Maryland. Half.

Converted third downs are pretty much the worst play in football for the defense (outside of TDs, maybe). Besides the demoralizing effect of a "stop, stop, conversion," sequence, it also guarantees a few extra plays every series. As an example, if you have the choice between a 12-yard completion on 1st down and a 12-yard completion on 3rd down, you take the one on first down; that's two fewer plays your defense has to deal with, despite the same outcome (not that Maryland should start forfeiting first downs). Maryland can't get off the field to save their defensive lives once they back other teams into 3rd downs, and they've had to play dozens of extra snaps because of it.

So, how does Maryland fix it? It's not easy; a nice start would be establishing a consistent ground game, which Friedgen hasn't had since Week 2. That's usually step #1 to controlling the clock and keeping time of possession and plays balanced. But defensively, Maryland's just going to have to get better, especially on third down. And that's not a switch to flip; either schematically or personally, something's going to have to change in Maryland's defense.

The longer this type of play imbalance goes on, the worse it gets for Maryland. Defensive fatigue will become an even bigger problem than it is now, and ACC teams will be able to take advantage of the disparity with far more success than teams like Navy and FIU did. Without a doubt, one of the keys of the rest of the season will be to find some way to even those numbers out.

By the way, both of those stats (time of possession and defensive third down rates) are pretty important. Only two teams below Maryland in either category - Texas Tech and Houston, two fast-paced teams that were worse in TOP - have winning records. If Maryland waits can't fix their own problem, don't be surprised if they don't, either.

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