Maryland football’s pass protection has been called into question on a couple occasions this season, but Saturday’s loss to Penn State was a particularly rough day. The Terps allowed four sacks in the game, and pressure on the quarterback caused two turnovers.
“Pass protection” is a vague term, and a lot goes into it. When something goes wrong, the knee-jerk reaction is usually to place blame on the offensive line. But other things can prompt these screw-ups, too. The quarterback can hold the ball for too long. A running back or tight end can miss a block. A pass rusher is sometimes completely unaccounted for.
“We had some mistakes [against Penn State] that we haven’t made since fall camp. We did some things that we haven’t done since I’ve been here,” offensive coordinator Walt Bell told reporters Wednesday. “Some of that was quarterback error, some of that was the guys up front. We were working in tandem together to play poorly. It wasn’t just one position group. It wasn’t just one area. We didn’t play very well as a whole.”
Both of Maryland’s turnovers in State College happened because small errors led to way-too-early hits on Perry Hills.
Here’s how Maryland lined up before Hills’ interception:
Hills threw the pick because he was blind-sided by Garrett Sickels (#90) while throwing. Sickels was actually blocked on the play by tight end Avery Edwards, who starts in the backfield and on the other side of the line. The two met up just behind where Derwin Gray currently crouches, and Sickels went around the smaller Edwards to get an easy shot at Hills.
One of the turning points in the game was Hills’ fumble immediately after a blocked punt set Maryland up inside the red zone. Once again, pressure forced the turnover.
Penn State linebacker Koa Farmer (#7) crept up toward the line of scrimmage before the snap and ultimately zipped into the backfield untouched. Tight end Derrick Hayward, who looks like the logical man to take care of him, instead went up the middle. It was a play-action pass, so it’s understandable that the blockers would sell the fake. But by the time Hills looked up and got set to throw, Farmer was already there.
Maryland rotates on the offensive line just as it does in any other position group.
Much has been made of the deep backfield and receiving corps, but there’s plenty of subbing up front, too. The Terps used five different offensive line combinations against Penn State, and we’ve seen several others during the season.
You’ll notice that Mike Minter and Brendan Moore were constants at left guard and center, respectively. The Michael Dunn/Terrance Davis/Damian Prince line started the game, the Derwin Gray/Prince/Dunn group played most of the third quarter, and the Gray/Davis/Dunn line was present for both turnovers (although, as the tape suggests, neither was really their fault).
It’s worth noting that Maurice Shelton, who was listed as the starter for the game, didn’t see the field until the second quarter, then went down with an injury and hobbled off after the play. He did, however, return for the final drive of the afternoon. We’ll never know for sure, but he was probably less than 100 percent all day. This week’s depth chart suggests that he’s healthy again, though.
So we’ll probably see both Shelton and Davis at right guard Saturday, and Prince could slide over to that spot as well. There doesn’t seem to be too much of a drop-off in play from one group to the next, and the regular rotating does build depth. One might imagine that it’s detrimental to the chemistry among linemen, but after five games and several months of practice together, everyone’s denying that is the case.
“I don’t think our chemistry is really that affected by [all the rotating],” Moore said. “We all practice together. We have the same calls. We do the same things. The timing might be a little different from guy to guy, but it’s really not that hard to have chemistry with everyone in the group and all the people that are rotating.”