These have not been easy times for the Maryland football team's offense.
Since a 38-31 win against Iowa on Oct. 18, C.J. Brown and the offense have struggled to their three worst offensive outputs of the season. The Terps have scored 42 points in the three games since, against Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan State – a 14-point average per game. They have managed just 207 yards per game in those contests, fueled by the three lowest per-play rates of their season. Last week, they ran for a total of 6 yards. That was only marginally worse than the 46 they accrued at Wisconsin or 33 at Penn State (via cfbstats).
Brown was quick to spot the common thread in the three most recent games.
"Yeah, they're all top-10 defenses," Brown said. "We've played some pretty good defenses. I think that's the biggest thing. We've got to step up our level of play and match that."
Indeed, in total defense, Wisconsin leads the nation. Penn State is third. Michigan State is ninth. And – in less than stellar news for the Maryland offense – Michigan ranks eighth. This will be the fourth consecutive week in which the Terps take on one of the country's truly elite defenses – a bizarre scheduling stretch even given that the teams share a conference.
"That's how you get better," center Sal Conaboy said. "That's what we're going to have to do every year in this league."
Brown's struggles have coincided with this stretch of dominant defenses, and the result has been uniform mediocrity on the offensive side of the ball. In fact, in his team's last five games, Brown has posted his five worst passer ratings.
Previously, against the 17th- and 18th-ranked defenses nationally (Ohio State and Iowa), Brown was actually far worse than he's been in the last three games. As Maryland has played terrific defenses, the quarterback hasn't been able to beat them, and the Terps have struggled. This week will make six straight games, in total, against top-20 defenses.
Mike Locksley, Maryland's offensive coordinator, said the onus to improve went beyond the quarterback.
"C.J.'s got to execute better. I've got to call the game better," Locksley said. "Offensive line's got to block better. Receivers have to catch the ball. Running backs have to make plays."
Many of those things haven't happened lately. The running game has barely moved an inch in over a month, and switching from Brandon Ross to Wes Brown at starting running back didn't change much last week. Maryland has suffered from several unforced drops. The offensive line has struggled against some of the nation's most formidable defensive fronts. This is, more than just Brown's, an offense-wide fight.
"It's a team sport. That's the good thing about football," Locksley said.
In the cold expanse of Michigan Stadium on Saturday, the Terps will face another uphill battle to score points. Even without now-dismissed defensive end Frank Clark (4.5 sacks), the Wolverines have a tough, veteran front. Middle linebacker Jake Ryan has 90 tackles this season, and defensive end Brennen Beyer has 5.5 sacks. Michigan's defense allows just 20 points per game. In what has become a theme for Maryland opponents, the Wolverines normally use four down linemen, though their packages vary.
Locksley said he expects Michigan to mix its coverages between zone and man-to-man looks.
Brown, who threw three interceptions against Michigan State, will need to keep Maryland's offense on the field for the Terps to have a chance to win.
"I think I've been pressing the last couple weeks, and unfortunately it's not really paid off," Brown said. "So I've just got to get back to the fundamentals and understand that when the plays are there, just make them."