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Maryland football’s defense needs to recapture its early season success in Indiana matchup

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The Terps have given up at least 30 points in their last three games

Maryland v Ohio State Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Maryland football’s latest loss to Minnesota last Saturday on the road marked the third consecutive game the Terps’ defense faltered and conceded at least 30 points to their opponent.

“As a head coach, you have a two-week opportunity to prepare for a team like Minnesota and to go out and not execute to the level at which we needed to execute to give ourselves a chance to win, when you watch the tape it’s disappointing because I really feel as though we put in a couple of good weeks of practice,” head coach Michael Locksley said.

Maryland had a bye week sandwiched in between its matchup against Ohio State and the road meeting with Minnesota, yet the Terps seemed unprepared to provide any kind of resistance against the Golden Gophers’ expected run-heavy offensive scheme. P.J. Fleck’s ground game during this year’s tenure with Minnesota has been the focal point of the offense since the opening week and it was expected that Maryland would be ready to combat the rushing attack to expose the Golden Gophers’ weak passing game, however, that wasn’t the case.

Minnesota marched all over Maryland on its home turf, compiling a grand total of 326 rushing yards, which is easily the highest amount of ground yardage that Maryland has surrendered this season. Minnesota’s third and fourth string backs wreaked havoc for 60 minutes as Ky Thomas and Mar’Keise Irving combined for 244 yards on 36 attempts. To compare, Maryland produced just 268 offensive yards all game, while Minnesota generated 451 total yards.

“For them to have the ability to run the football, that to me was probably the biggest disappointment because we know going into the game that that’s the strength of what they do and as we gameplan offensively, defensively, and in special teams, our jobs as coaches are finding ways to, as we like to say, make a play left-handed, and I didn’t feel like we did that.”

However, this lackluster defensive performance isn’t new. Just three games ago, Maryland suffered its first loss of the season when facing off with then-No. 5 Iowa. The Hawkeyes threw for nearly 300 yards and finished with 428 total yardage against the Terps’ defense en route to a dominant 51-14 win in College Park on Oct. 1.

Then looking back at the road game just before the bye week in Columbus, Ohio it was clear that Maryland was no match for an offensive juggernaut like Ohio State. The arsenal of offensive weapons shredded Maryland’s injury-ridden secondary and quarterback C.J. Stroud ended with one of his best games of the season, totaling 406 yards and five touchdowns with no turnovers. Ohio State ended with 598 yards of offense in the 66-17 loss for the Terps.

The total opponent yardage over the past three losses comes out to 1,477 yards, which equates to Maryland’s defense giving up just short of conceding 500 yards per game.

Those current totals are a polar opposite of what the Terps were able to do to opposing offenses during Maryland’s first four wins of the 2021 season, when once upon a time Maryland was off to its best start since 2016.

During its 4-0 start on a per-game basis, the Terps gave up an average of 324, collected four sacks a game and conceded just over 14 points per game. Ever since that red-hot start from both sides of the football, things have fallen off for Maryland, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

During its losing streak that has now stretched to three, Maryland has given up an average of 492.3 yards per game, registered just one sack per contest and the defense is giving up just over 50 points per game.

Now, with a 4-3 record and still five games left to play, Maryland’s defense is in dire need of a comeback effort in the second half of the season if the Terps hope to reach the desired benchmark of six wins.

Luckily for Locksley’s Terps, Indiana’s fairly inefficient offense presents an inviting opportunity for Maryland. The Hoosiers rank dead-last in the Big Ten in both yards per game with around 307 and average yards gained per offensive play with just 4.3 yards.

The passing offense is just eighth in the Big Ten with just under 200 yards per game and the ground game generates just 111.3 yards per contest as well. However, despite the inefficiency in the run game, Locksley expects the Hoosiers to attempt to emulate what Minnesota was able to do against Maryland on the offensive end.

“We say this often, that you know, in baseball if you can’t hit the curveball, guess what you’re gonna see? You’ll see the curveball,” Locksley said. “Well, I would expect that with their quarterbacks being banged up, they’re gonna line up and say, ‘Well, let’s look and see what Minnesota did,’ so we better get the things that we haven’t been able to correct, corrected, this week and expect them to come in and try to run the ball down our throat.”

Maryland’s secondary was the only group on defense that saw improvement in its loss to the Golden Gophers after two straight duds against Iowa and Ohio State, as quarterback Tanner Morgan tossed just eight completions on 12 attempts for 125 yards and no touchdowns. It was a step in the right direction for the defensive backs that let Stroud and Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras pass all over them in the two weeks prior.

Indiana has just 22 points over the last three of its defeats, all of which came against ranked teams in the Big Ten, and a big reason as to why the Hoosiers have been low-scoring is because of its rotating quarterbacks. That’s something Maryland can take advantage of on Saturday, especially when looking at the secondary.

Locksley’s expectation is that true freshman Donaven McCulley, who stepped in for an injured second-string Jack Tuttle last game against Ohio State, will be the quarterback stepping onto the field for Indiana come Saturday. McCulley went just 1-for-6 through the air when he faced the Buckeyes, albeit in sudden relief of Tuttle. Tuttle has been tagged as week-to-week after a foot injury by head coach Tom Allen and isn’t a sure thing to be available against Maryland.

Starting quarterback Michael Penix Jr., on the other hand, has been out since separating the AC joint in his throwing shoulder in Indiana’s defeat on Oct. 2. It’s a mixed bag of question marks for Indiana’s quarterbacks heading into the meeting with Maryland, though the Terps are playing that storyline down.

“We just have to prepare for all of them, whoever may play,” sophomore defensive back Tarheeb Still said. “We just gotta stay one step ahead and just be prepared for whoever they put in the field. Even if more than one of them plays, we just gotta be prepared.”

Maryland’s defense is also slowly on the mend, with freshman linebacker Branden Jennings working his way back onto the depth chart after an injury he suffered against Kent State and starting defensive back Jakorian Bennett making his return last game in the Minnesota loss.

The matchup with the Hoosiers is going to be one of the last chances Maryland has to face a subpar offense as three of its final four opponents after this Saturday’s game rank in the top half of the Big Ten in overall offense. Michigan State and Michigan, teams that Maryland will face in two of its last three games, are both top-four programs in the conference regarding the offense.

The Terps’ bowl game hopes are riding on a win, and a bounce back from the defense, against Indiana. The game in College Park has also been tabbed as Maryland’s homecoming game for 2021.

“It’s a big thing, homecoming, it’s a big weekend over here,” junior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa said. “I think the biggest thing is just for us to continue to get back on track and win this game this Saturday.”

Maryland’s defense has certainly fallen off track in its last three games, but it has enough talented personnel to recover against an Indiana team that deploys one of the weakest offenses in the Big Ten. Homecoming is just the latest opportunity for Maryland to get right heading into the final stretch of the season.

“Homecoming is a great opportunity,” Locksley said. “Football creates a brotherhood that transcends through generations and we have an opportunity for some of our former players to come back and some of our former students here to come back and homecoming is for them. You know, for us, we’re the show and it’s our job, as I always say, go out and put a product on the field that these people coming back to your campus can be proud of. And I expect us to do that.

“I think this weekend, you’ll have a chance to see us really go out and get back to our standard.”