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Maryland football’s offense will be put to the test against Syracuse

The Orange boast one of the best defensive lines in the country, as well as the best safeties in college football.

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Maryland football vs Howard Sarah Sopher / Testudo Times

Maryland football exploded against Howard in its 2019 season opener.

The Terrapins offense put up 70 points in the 79-0 victory, 49 of which came in the first half alone, racking up 623 yards of total offense in the process. That included an incredibly balanced attack by game’s end, as they passed for 306 yards and rushed for 317 more.

There was obviously with a helping hand from the defense, which held the Bison in check all afternoon, but head coach Mike Locksley’s offensive system couldn’t have gotten off to a better start. Offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery dialed up a mix of plays that had Howard’s defense guessing at every turn and rendered it useless in keeping Maryland out of the endzone.

But as Locksley said immediately following the historic victory, “We’ll celebrate it for 24 hours, we’ll get back in here on Monday and we’ll start putting together a game plan for Syracuse.”

While Saturday’s game against Howard was the first look at the new-look Terrapins, both on offense and defense, this week’s battle against Syracuse will be the team’s first true test —especially for the offense.

The Orange are No. 2 in the country in rushing yards allowed after giving up minus 4 in their season opener, with Maryland right behind them at No. 3. Bleacher Report ranked them as the 6th best defensive line in the country. The defense also boasts the No. 4 defensive back in the nation, sophomore Andre Cisco, according to USA TODAY — he was tied for the most interceptions in college football in 2018.

“[Cisco’s] a ball hawk,” said linebacker Shaq Smith, who played with him in high school. “He can trick, make you think he’s in one spot and be in another spot, so he’s definitely going to be a guy that’s a key in watching this week.”

In the latest Associated Press Top-25 Poll, Syracuse checked in at No. 21 following a 24-0 shutout in its season opener.

Syracuse’s offense had some ups and downs against the Flames, but the defense had a tremendous showing. It held Liberty to negative four rushing yards, registered eight sacks and forced four turnovers, two interceptions and two lost fumbles.

“They’re very good at taking the ball away,” Maryland quarterback Josh Jackson said Tuesday. “As you watch. They’re one of the better teams at just stripping the ball carrier. So they do a very good job. ... They’re a very good defense.”

The Orange were led by senior Lakiem Williams’ 11 tackles, including 2.5 for loss and 1.5 sacks, but also had impressive contributions from defensive linemen Josh Black and Kendall Coleman, a redshirt junior and senior, respectively, who each sacked Liberty quarterback Stephen Calvert two times apiece.

“They have two pass rushers fast on the ends that just make plays,” Jackson said. “They’re big, lengthy guys and fast. I’m not surprised that they had [eight sacks].”

And it wasn’t just the 2019 season opener. Last season, Syracuse’s defense was among the better units in the Atlantic Coastal Conference and played a huge role in the program winning 10 games. Of the 14 teams in the ACC, the Orange allowed the sixth-fewest points per game (26.6), registered the second-most sacks (45, only trailed to Clemson) and tied with Boston College for the most interceptions with 20 on the season. Their sack rate also ranked sixth in the country, and their 18 regular season picks placed them in a tie for fifth (alongside Maryland).

Syracuse had five defenders named to the various All-ACC teams following the end of 2018, including 2019 All-ACC Preseason Team players in senior defensive end Alton Robinson (39 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 10 sacks last year) and sophomore safety Andre Cisco (tied nation-high with seven interceptions). The duo made their mark against the Flames Saturday, as the former had five tackles, 1.5 for a loss and half a sack, and the latter had six tackles and an interception.

All in all, the Orange defense returns eight starters and has the same coaching staff as it did last season. While it’s hard to take too much stock into a game against an FCS team, it was more of the same for a Syracuse team which has made great strides in recent years under Dino Babers.

And while the Terps looked sharp as can be against Howard, they’ll be in for a much tougher challenge this week. That includes blocking the vaunted defensive line of Syracuse, led by Robinson and Coleman.

“[Robinson] and [Coleman], their two bookends, are really experienced players and have played really well for those guys the last couple of years,” Locksley said. “They’re both explosive, really long, limber guys that are able to get off blocks quickly. So we’ve got to do a really good job up front of playing with the pad level and matching the intensity as we come off the football to try to establish our abilities up front to run the football, which is going to be important in a game like this.”

Maryland’s offensive line did a solid job against the Bison, not allowing any sacks on the day. But there were instances where the defense broke through and landed hits on Jackson. And while Locksley said that was mostly due to Howard’s cover-zero defensive gameplan, he alluded to redshirt freshman Jaelyn Duncan starting at left tackle against Syracuse over senior Ellis McKennie, who had gotten the nod in Week 1.

In any case, the Terps are ready for the challenge that awaits them, and Saturday’s game could define how the rest of the season will play out.

“If we do the right things, I don’t think we’ll be stopped,” Jackson said. I think that we have a lot of answers to what defenses can bring us. I think if we don’t hurt ourselves and we execute and make the plays we’re supposed to make, I think we have a good chance to be a great offense.”