While many thought Maryland’s offense would lead it to success this season, it’s been the defense — particularly the unit’s ability to turn the ball over — which has been paramount to the Terps’ 4-0 start.
“The defense has done a really good job the last couple of games of creating turnovers,” head coach Mike Locksley said. “And as I’ve said before, you know, the winning formula is big plays.”
Four games into the season, Maryland’s defense has debatably been the best in the Big Ten. It ranks first in forced turnovers (11) and interceptions (7) and fourth in points allowed per game (12.3). Albeit without facing stiff competition, including the conference’s best — Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State — the Terps’ defense has shown an ability to make game-altering plays.
After forcing a fumble in Maryland’s five-takeaway performance at Michigan State, linebacker Sean Greeley said, “We put an emphasis on getting hands on the ball and taking a lot of shots on the ball.”
That big-play ability severely lacked last year. At this point last season, the Terps had just four takeaways.
“Last couple of years, I remember coming in always talking about, ‘We got to find ways to get our hands on more balls.’ And the last couple of weeks, it’s like the floodgates have opened and our guys are hungry for it on that side of the ball,” Locksley said.
Maryland’s defense still has strides to make in a couple of particular categories, though. First, it’s allowing more yards than it would like. Opponents are running for over 130 yards per game and passing for close to 230, both of which rank in the bottom half of the conference. Turnovers cannot be relied on as a bailout game in and game out.
As well, the Terps’ third-down defense has been mediocre, ranking No. 57 in the nation. They’ve allowed teams to move the chains 19 times on 51 third-down attempts.
“We haven’t played our cleanest game yet,” defensive back Glendon Miller said. “And on like third down, we have’t been that clean.”
But, they have been able to get off the field and allow Taulia Tagovailoa and the offense to put up points, which is what ultimately wins games. Maryland’s stop rate, which measures the percentage of defensive drives that end in a punt or turnover, ranks No. 11 in the FBS.
Unsurprisingly, only three Big Ten teams rank ahead of the Terps — the same three mentioned above.
Despite the imperfect performances, Maryland’s defense has produced key takeaways, which has undoubtedly been imperative in the team’s undefeated start.
“[The turnovers] have definitely been a catalyst in how we’ve been able to overcome slow starts, and then last week helping with our fast start, so it’s a much-needed thing for us on the defensive side,” Locksley added.
So the question herein lies: Can Maryland’s defense sustain its high level of play? Time will tell, but it’s undeniable that the Terps are playing some of their best defense in years.