Maryland narrowly escaped a worthy opponent in SMU Saturday night, 34-27, en route to a 3-0 nonconference record — the second straight season it finished the nonconference slate undefeated.
It was a mistake-riddled game for Maryland, but ultimately it persevered and outlasted the Mustangs in a crucial home matchup.
The offense did just enough to outlast SMU. Maryland’s defense came up huge in key situations and forced two turnovers that gave Maryland’s offense more opportunities, which it desperately needed.
“We needed a game like that,” head coach Mike Locksley said. “I got a lot of respect for the way our guys fought, for the resiliency they showed being down, these guys never flinched.”
Maryland now moves onto Big Ten play with a lot to clean up if it wants to compete in the conference.
Let’s get to some takeaways from Maryland’s ugly, but gutsy win.
Maryland’s defense bailed out its offense
Maryland’s defense hadn’t forced a single turnover through the first two games. That changed against SMU, when Maryland forced SMU’s offense into three untimely turnovers — two interceptions and one fumble — that allowed Maryland’s offense to have more opportunities in a game it needed to savor every one of them.
Maryland’s defense is not the strong suit of the team and has way more question marks surrounding it than the offense, but against SMU, it consistently bailed out an offensive unit that never found its rhythm.
Earlier this season, Locksley discussed the importance of winning the turnover battle, something Maryland failed to do in its first two games. However, it found a way against SMU, halting potential scoring drives and handing the ball over to the Terps’ offense.
Defensive backs Beau Brade and Dante Trader Jr. each had an interception, while Brade also forced a fumble that Maryland scooped up.
“When we make big plays, like that forced fumble and Dante Trader got that pick too, it’s just big plays around and that led up to us having the confidence we had on the defensive side,” Brade said.
Maryland’s defense was far from perfect, giving up 520 yards of total offense and 11 catches for 193 yards to SMU wide receiver Rashee Rice, but it did enough to seal Maryland’s win.
Along with the turnovers, Maryland got timely stops. The Terps’ defense held SMU to just seven points in the second half after relinquishing 20 through the first 30 minutes.
SMU marched down the field trailing by a touchdown in hopes to tie the game with just a few minutes remaining. The Mustangs had the ball on Maryland’s 9-yard line and were faced with third and fourth downs. The Terps’ defense came up huge, playing tight coverage that led to poor throws by SMU’s quarterback Tanner Mordecai.
“When we needed to make stops, our defense made stops,” Locksley said.
Few expected Maryland’s defense to lead it to victory against a potent SMU offense, but it did just that, generating enough stops and timely turnovers to limit the Mustangs’ offense.
Maryland’s rushing attack led the way
It’s no secret Maryland is a pass-heavy offense. With a record-breaking quarterback in Taulia Tagovailoa and star-studded wide receivers, Maryland loves to throw the ball. Locksley has talked about wanting more balance between the run and pass game, but when teams prepare for Maryland, they are preparing to defend the pass.
Against SMU, Maryland showed its rushing attack is capable of leading the offense when things aren’t clicking for the passing game. The Terps stayed afloat against an offensive juggernaut in the first half with its running game leading the way. In the second half, the passing attack started to click, but it was still the rushing attack and the defense that dragged the Terps across the finish line.
Maryland had 225 rushing yards and 214 passing yards. It was the first time all season Maryland had more yards on the ground than in the air. Maryland also ran 38 rushing plays and just 23 passing plays.
Roman Hemby has proven himself as the No. 1 option on the team and had another dominant performance on Saturday. Although he’s a phenomenal runner, he’s a great pass-catcher and solid in protection as well.
He finished with 151 yards rushing and 62 yards receiving.
“Really proud of the way he’s continued to play, that whole running back room in general, they’ve got a bright future,” Locksley said.
It’s an encouraging, and somewhat surprising, sign that Maryland’s run game is as formidable as it is. It allows play caller Dan Enos to have more options when he can consistently rely on his run game. If the first three games are an indicator, he certainly can.
Penalties are Maryland’s biggest nightmare
Discipline has been the longest-running problem for Locksley’s group dating back to last season, when Maryland committed the second-most penalties in the Big Ten. It was a problem Locksley constantly lamented about, but heading into this season, given the veteran presence on both sides of the ball — the Terps returned 15 total starters — the expectation was that Maryland would clean up its discipline problem this season.
Through three games, that is certainly not the case. Maryland has committed 31 penalties, including a whopping 15 against SMU on Saturday night that costed the Terps 141 yards.
At one point early on in the second quarter with Maryland trailing by 10, the Terps had a fourth-and-1 opportunity on their own side of the field and were positioned to go for it. However, a false start on offensive lineman Amelio Moran pushed it back to a fourth-and-6, forcing Maryland to punt it away.
Three of Maryland’s false starts in the first half were on third- or fourth-and-short situations, ruining Maryland’s chances of a first down. SMU picked up 14 first downs in the first half, while Maryland had just eight.
In the third quarter, on third-and-goal, Tagovailoa threw a pass to wide receiver Jeshaun Jones for a touchdown. Except, there were two penalties on the play, both on Maryland. One was a holding call and the other was unsportsmanlike conduct. The two flags pushed Maryland back to SMU’s 31-yard line for third-and-goal. Maryland instead settled for a field goal to tie the game at 20.
The discipline issue is something Locksley and the entire staff have struggled to instill in their group, even with experienced guys on the field. It didn’t matter too much against weak opponents in the first two games, but it certainly hurt them in a battle against SMU, even though they won in spite of it.
“Obviously we got a lot of things to get cleaned up on offense. It starts with me with the penalties and I’ll get that corrected,” Locksley said.
With nonconference play in the rearview, if Maryland doesn’t somehow clean up its penalty problem, it will be hard to “close the gap” in the Big Ten East and compete with some of the top teams.