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Against Minnesota, Maryland’s defense has chance to correct read-option mistakes

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Penn State gashed the Terps’ front seven. They’re working hard to make sure Minnesota doesn’t do the same.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Maryland football team has some demons to get rid of when Minnesota comes to College Park this weekend. The Terps will face an offense that has noticable similarities to the Penn State attack that ran for 372 yards in Maryland’s first loss of the season last week, and they’ve been working on some solutions.

Former walk-on Conor Rhoda — a quarterback who’s only thrown two career passes — will operate the Gophers’ offense this weekend after starter Mitch Leidner suffered a concussion last week against Iowa. It stands to reason that Maryland has a chance to focus on stopping the run.

Sophomore running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks will power Minnesota, and limiting them could determine the outcome of Saturday’s game.

“These guys are elusive. They can break tackles. Several teams they’ve played have had a hard time tackling them after first contact,” Maryland defensive coordinator Andy Buh told reporters Wednesday. “We need a lot of hats to the ball, eyes up, with good fundamentals.”

Luckily for Maryland, this isn’t the same threat Penn State running back Saquon Barkley provided. While last week’s performance bumped Penn State up to the 10th-best rushing offense in the country, Minnesota has the 100th-best ground game, according to S&P+. Still, that could be fearsome enough to give Maryland’s 116th-ranked rushing defense some problems.

Smith is Minnesota’s feature back, powering his way to 4.8 yards per carry on 93 rushes. Brooks is the team’s change-of-pace runner, as he’s averaging 6.5 yards per rush. The Gophers run a read-option attack not dissimilar to what Penn State runs. It comes out of the pistol formation instead of the shotgun, but there are some definite similarities in how Maryland has to defend it.

“We need to keep a box on the offense,” Buh said. “We have to have good edges on this defense to maximize who we are.”

“It’s about knowing your responsibility as a defender and knowing who you have, playing your gap and just doing your job,” said defensive end Melvin Keihn, who often has an important role setting the edge on many read-option plays.

The Terps’ front seven had some troubling signs in its previous four games, but those morphed into failures in State College. Barkely ran wild, and quarterback Trace McSorley hurt the Terps whenever he’d tuck the ball away and run.

“We’ve seen a guy get out of the gap or miss an assignment earlier in the season, but those things hadn’t hurt us, for whatever reason,” Buh said. “One guy makes a mistake, we can fix that. But when several guys start making mistakes trying to cover up for someone else’s mistakes, that’s chaos. No coach in America wants to manage chaos on gameday. You don’t have enough fingers to plug the holes.”

This echoed head coach DJ Durkin’s remarks following the loss.

“We just weren’t playing within the scheme,” Durkin said in his postgame press conference. “They hit a couple plays on us and all of a sudden it was like we had every player trying to make every play as opposed to just making the one’s you’re supposed to.”

Now, Durkin and Buh are charged with preventing that from happening again. Beyond just reinforcing players’ assignments and lanes when defending the read-option, that’s involved reintroducing 1-on-1 drills they haven’t used much at practice since the beginning of the season. But no particular drill in practice is going to be the turning point for this defense. The scheme hasn’t changed, and the players know what they have to do.

“We have to stay more focused, disciplined and locked in, but we’re not going to change what we do,” safety Darnell Savage Jr. said. “I trust all our guys up front, so I just have to do my job on the back end.”