A month into the season, we've seen plenty of storylines come and go for Maryland. There's been Randy Edsall's job security, the wrath of the injury gods, Mike Locksley's local recruiting efforts, Perry Hills' progression as a quarterback, Stefon Diggs' rise to stardom, the confusing four-headed running back monster. All valid discussion topics, with interesting nuances and big consequences for the future of the Terrapins' program.
But one big thing, probably the most promising thing in the program not named Diggs, is getting nearly ignored: Maryland's defense, which has quietly emerged as one of the better D's in the nation. They've grabbed few headlines over the first four weeks of the season, despite ranking 8th in the country in total defense (12th in yards/play) and consistently bailing out Maryland's young and understandably-erratic offense; despite ranking as the eight-stingiest rush defense in the country; and now despite holding one of the nation's most dangerous and explosive offenses to a mere 24 points and 363 yards.
It's understandable that, after the first few weeks, there were doubts over just how good the defense was and people were reticent when it came to hyping them up. Their first three opponents, after all, were William and Mary, Temple (13 points against Penn State) and Uconn (7 points against N.C. State). It was hardly a murderer's row. The real test came against West Virginia's patented Score All The Points offense. And, after going toe-to-toe with them, you have to think they passed.
Now, they didn't shut down WVU, that's true. But then they're not LSU. (Oh, speaking of: West Virginia put up more yards against LSU last year than they did against Maryland this year. I'm not sayin', I'm just sayin'.) But they did hold their own, and many very good teams will do much, much worse this season. In fact, only once since Dana Holgorsen arrived in Morgantown have the 'Eers been held to less; going back to his Oklahoma State days, only three times since the 2010 season has a Holgo-led offense done as poorly. It's more than anyone expected this defense to do - especially their secondary. Go read a few thoughts from the Smoking Musket folks to see how concerned they were by WVU's showing, and how impressed they were with Maryland's scheme and execution.
That performance was a legitimizing one for Maryland's defense, a confirmation that they're at least as near as good we all hoped they were. (Sure, it exposed their secondary a tad, which is easily their weakest link. But they won't face a better passing attack all season, and they were hardly embarrassed or passed off the field by West Virginia's. Against the likes of Wake Forest and N.C. State? They'll be okay.)
And we did hope they'd be good. There was plenty of reason to expect a strong defense before the year, with four seniors starting in the front seven. Each of those upperclassmen - A.J. Francis, Joe Vellano, Demetrius Hartsfield, and Darin Drakeford - have played a critical role and proven to be eminently reliable. And their relative youngsters like Darius Kilgo, Alex Twine, and Cole Farrand have held their own themselves. The biggest question mark, Brian Stewart's new 3-4 scheme, has worked near-flawlessly in its first season. The jury's still out on whether he can prove to be a Don Brown-esque mastermind, but while so many defensive coordinators struggle in their first year, the players seem to have taken to the new look like ducks - or, er, turtles - to water. There's a lot to be happy with.
Yeah, maybe their stats are a little inflated. That's what happens when you face awful offenses like Uconn and Temple. But after last year's defense finished 108th in the country in total defense and got absolutely run over by the theretofore-impotent offenses of Virginia, Boston College, and Wake Forest, having a unit that clobbers inferior opposition is a cause worth celebrating. These guys are good. And they've earned at least a little hype after what they did against the Mountaineers.
And the best part of all? They should only get better as they year goes on. Like the rest of Maryland's roster, the defense has more room to grow over the final eight weeks than the vast majority of teams.
For starters, they're only just now getting healthy. They played the first two games without starting safety Matt Robinson and nickel back Isaac Goins; the first three games with starting linebacker Kenneth / Kenny Tate; the first four without potential starting DB A.J. Hendy. Getting Hendy back and Robinson up to speed, along with Tate shaking off the rust, will improve them greatly, especially in their weakest area - defending the pass. Tate, in particular, is still a paradigm-changing talent, and now he has a chip on his shoulder and plenty to prove. He'll instantly make Maryland's defense better and significantly more difficult to attack.
They should also improve as they continue to nail down Stewart's scheme. In the first three games, Maryland showed mostly vanilla looks. Against West Virginia, we started to see what some of Stewart's 3-4 could do, going 3-3-5 at times and showing some genuinely intriguing blitz packages. As the defense gets more well-drilled to the scheme, Stewart will be able to add in more little wrinkles and ambitious blitzes, and they'll be better for it.
Not to mention that the offense will hopefully stop leaving them out to dry so much. Of the 88 points Maryland's given up this year, 14 came from punt return and fumble return touchdowns. Another 26 came when the opposing offense started with the ball on Maryland's side of the 50. The Terrapins have been the most turnover-prone team in the country so far, meaning that no defense has had to deal with as many momentum-killers and short fields as Maryland's. As the offense gets more experienced, they'll have fewer short fields to defend - and that's good, because through four games they've only given up five actual scoring drives of at least 60 yards, with three of those coming against WVU.
And as I mentioned earlier, most of the offenses still on Maryland's schedule aren't all that imposing. Florida State, Clemson, and Georgia Tech are all legitimately scary units, and they come right in a row late in the year. But other than that? Wake Forest is #109 in total offense. Virginia is #88. N.C. State is #77. Boston College is #88 in scoring offense. Those are not offenses that will seriously worry Maryland.
But one of the most important developments will be mental: each strong performance they have, they gain just a little bit more confidence. The best defenses take offenses having success against them them as a personal insult; Maryland's last year seemed all too often to lack that. But you can already see the opposite happening this year. By the time they played West Virginia, they had already had good showings against Uconn, Temple, and W+M, and you could see the mental effect. They had some swagger in their stride. They were emotional and fiery. They genuinely looked like they believed they were bigger, stronger, faster, and better than West Virginia, and they waned to control the game.
I don't think they are in fact better than West Virginia's offense, but their attitude showed up in their gameplan. Namely, keeping Geno Smith on his back all day long. I don't know how many knockdowns they had on Smith, but it was surely in double-digits. There was a swagger and physicality from Maryland's defense we haven't seen since Don Brown's second season - and, before that, in years. And if it's not there, it's tough to believe that they get to Smith as much as they did on Saturday. There's a mental component to playing like that, a great defense believing in imposing their will and punching the opposition in the mouth. The more strong games this unit has, the more they'll buy into it, and the better they'll be. Between guys like Vellano (one of the hardest-working players in the country), Francis (a huge personality), Tate (who has something to prove), and the contact-lovin' Hartsfield, Drakeford, Twine, Hendy, and Dexter McDougle, they have the physicality to match up with every offense on their schedule, save FSU.
We often decry that Maryland football has no tradition. Not necessarily fan traditions, though they do lack that, or a rivalry, which they also lack, or even player/coach traditions (like Nebraska's blackshirts or Clemson's Howard's Rock or Miami's The U). No, the biggest concern is something more practical: there's a distinct and very real lack of identity when it comes to Maryland football. Virginia Tech is Beamerball; FSU's about top-notch athleticism; West Virginia has their run-n-gun offense; Florida has the legacy of Spurrier; most teams in the Big Ten have the power run game. Maryland hasn't nothing to hang their hat on, year after year.
But back in the early 2000s, during the Modern Era glory years, there was a common denominator to Maryland's best teams: a physical, supremely confident, overpowering, intimidating defense. Led by the likes of E.J. Henderson, D'Qwell Jackson, Madieu Williams, Shawne Merriman, Randy Starks, and Dominique Foxworth, there was an undeniable swagger and physicality to the most successful Maryland teams of the past few decades. They relished overpowering offenses physically and athletically, coming into every game with swagger and confidence that they'd be able to do just that.
Those teams bore the moniker Dirty Terps, and we haven't seen it since the Josh Wilson days. This defense probably isn't as good as most of those, but they have the same attitude, physicality, and swagger about them. With with the way they've been playing this year, they're might just make a run at bringing that nickname out of retirement.