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Big plays, red zone defense key in Maryland football’s win over Minnesota

Score a lot. Don’t let the other team score. It’s simple.

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

Maryland football scored six touchdowns on Saturday without entering the red zone once.

The Terps had scores of 26, 81, 54, 64 and 21 yards on offense in addition to a 36-yard pick-six. For everything that didn’t go right last week, everything seemed to click for Maryland against Minnesota.

On the defensive side of the ball, third-down defense and stingy red zone play kept Minnesota out of the end zone and kept the score tilted in Maryland’s favor. The Golden Gophers entered the red zone four times, but only scored twice: once on a 33-yard field goal and once on a 17-yard pass. Maryland forced turnovers on the other two trips, both on fourth down needing a touchdown in lieu of a field goal.

“Being in the red zone, the thing is you want to limit points as much as possible,” Tre Watson told the media after the game. “In our last three games, we hadn’t been able to force field goals, so that was something we talked about throughout the week — we’ve got to turn those seven points into three at the most.”

Holding Minnesota to just 10 red zone points, all of which came in the second quarter, was key to holding the Gophers in check. It allowed the Terps’ explosive offense to get back on the field. And once it was there, it wasted little time converting its chances to score.

Other than the final drive, which ate up almost eight minutes of clock thanks to 13 consecutive rushes, Maryland only had one scoring drive longer than four minutes. The explosive offense put the defense on the field more often and kept the number of plays low, but that’s less of a problem with a big lead.

“As far as the yards on offense, it’s just kind of the way it went,” interim head coach Matt Canada said. “We only had 51 plays. We had 52 last week. We’re like on a new track record around here for no plays. But this week, at least it’s because we were scoring, right? So that’s a positive.”

It didn’t seem to bother the defense much. With the offense punching the ball in from all over the field, the defense responded by forcing Minnesota into converting only 5 of 16 third downs and turning the ball over three times.

“Third down is big for us,” Watson said. “I believe we’ve been first in the conference through three games on third down. It’s a huge emphasis for us. We want to get off the field.

“When you’re able to get a turnover on downs, that’s huge. Byron had the sack forced fumble and [RaVon Davis] gets the interception on the other fourth-down play, those are absolutely huge plays. When you’re all the way down there inside the red zone, you’re expecting to give up some amount of points — three at a minimum — and then we get those type of stops, that changes the game.”

But with the lead down to 11 and Minnesota gaining some momentum coming out of the half with the ball, it was Watson’s pick that swung the game back in Maryland’s favor. The Terps would never give the momentum back.

“It was huge,” Canada said. “I thought out guys came out there excited to go play. To get a score on defense, any time you can score on defense, it puts you in a great position to play.”

For Watson, it was another highlight for a player who came to Maryland specifically to be a veteran presence on the defense. Since his arrival, he’s been the replacement for Jermaine Carter Jr. the Terps needed. Saturday marked his second straight game with double-digit tackles and his second game-changing interception of the season.

“They had been running that zone pop play on us a few times,” Watson said. “They hit on us on the boundary earlier in the game. It was something we weren’t going to let happen again.

“I’m pretty sure that pick is all for Antoine Brooks. He lit him up and when the ball’s in the air, it’s gotta be mine. That’s all of our approach as soon as the ball’s in the air. After that point, it’s basically just a free line to the end zone. Antoine cut the quarterback off and [there’s] no better feeling than being in the end zone for the team.”

The Terps can now take the momentum from Saturday into a bye week before heading into a harsh environment in Ann Arbor to face Michigan. But if the early-season resilience of the team is any indication, it’s nothing the Terps can’t handle.

“It’s unbelievable. It’s unbelievable,” Canada said, interrupting a reporter’s question with a smile. “These kids are special. What they go through and how they came back — they’re awesome. The kids are awesome.”