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Maryland football: Against stingy Wisconsin defense, C.J. Brown's execution key for Terps

The Terrapins expect to face heavy pressure and man-to-man coverage against Wisconsin.

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

The next two weeks won't be easy for quarterback C.J. Brown and the Maryland football team's offense. At Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday, they'll face a Wisconsin defense that has surrendered the second-fewest raw yards in FBS this season. At Beaver Stadium the following week, they'll face the only team that's allowed even fewer, Penn State.

The Badgers have allowed the 10th-fewest points per game in college football (17.7). They allow just 117 rushing yards per game (fourth best in the Big Ten) and have the conference's best passing defense, surrendering just 169 aerial yards per game. Brown, who has only sporadically thrown the ball successfully this year, has quite a task ahead of him.

"They're stout. They're a man-to-man defense. They get after the quarterback," Brown said. "They get after the running game and the passing game. They're very good on the defensive side of the ball."

The Terrapins expect Wisconsin to give them varied defensive looks, especially at the line of scrimmage. The Badgers are based in a 3-4 defense but use four down linemen sometimes and aren't shy about playing with man-to-man coverage in their secondary. Like most of Maryland's opponents this year, offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said the Badgers would blitz often.

"When you play man and there is pressure involved, it forces your quarterback to have to be accurate because [cornerbacks] press," Locksley said. "They limit the space between them and the receiver, which makes the windows tighter than when you play zone coverage."

If the Badgers bring heat against Maryland's offensive line and play in man coverage behind it, Maryland's receivers will need to sneak free for at least a quick moment. When they do, Brown will need to have the ball arriving immediately and accurately.

More than that, if Wisconsin cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary can contain any combination of Maryland's best receivers by themselves, the Badgers will be free to move a safety into the defensive box or replace one with a linebacker or lineman. Either would be problematic for Maryland's rushing attack – which, according to a Matt Zenitz note, could be without starting running back Brandon Ross.

The Terps faced a similar possibility against Iowa cornerback Desmond King last week, but King wasn't able to prevent Stefon Diggs from having a big receiving game. That didn't hurt the Terps' runners, who collectively had one of their best games of the year.

To counter Wisconsin's blitzing and stingy coverage tendencies, Maryland could rely on a series of screen passes to receivers and running backs. In wins against Syracuse and Iowa, the offense leaned heavily on those plays.

All year, Maryland's wide receivers have been excellent as downfield blockers. It's easy to cherry-pick plays where receivers have blocked well (and we're absolutely about to do that), but as a general trend, Diggs and Leak have led the group in providing quality cover for each other and the rest of the Terps' ball-carriers.

Last week against Iowa, downfield blocks sprang two Maryland touchdowns.

On Jacquille Veii's 23-yard touchdown run, Diggs took King, the Iowa cornerback, out of the play with a tenacious push (screencap below and video, via Maryland, at 0:35 here).

Diggs blocks King

Later, on Diggs' own long touchdown play, Marcus Leak sent King flying backward as the cornerback tried to angle out Diggs to prevent the score. King might have never gotten to Diggs anyway in the open field, but Leak's block sealed it:

Leak blocks King

Remember Ross's 90-yard screen pass touchdown against Syracuse? Diggs and Leak opened up gaping hole between four Syracuse defenders.

Ross TD

This is all anecdotal evidence – made easiest to find because it's come on highlighted plays – but it's indicative of an important part of Maryland's offensive game. Against a pressuring front and Wisconsin's man-to-man coverage, it could be especially crucial on Saturday.

Edsall said receivers coach Keenan McCardell, who played 16 years in the NFL, has contributed to the emphasis on the downfield help.

"I think Keenan's doing a really good job, and I think the kids are doing a good job of listening and understanding that for us to make big plays in the running game, the receivers have to be good blockers. They know that if they don't do it, they won't be out there."

For Diggs, an NFL Draft prospect either this year or next, it must be an especially attractive quality.

"It's key to owning on your craft and trying to become a complete receiver," Diggs said.