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Three takeaways from Maryland football’s defensive performance in upset over Penn State

The Terps defense found its stride in Week Three of the 2020 season.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Penn State Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland football earned its first victory since 2014 against Penn State on Saturday, defeating the Nittany Lions, 35-19, after losing its previous three contests by a combined 157 points.

A complete performance in all three phases allowed the Terps to exert their will with ease, picking up just their third victory against the Nittany Lions in 44 meetings.

The defense looked much improved after allowing opponents an average 43.5 points per game through its first two contests, as it held Penn State to 19 points, one score of which came with 11 seconds left.

Here are the three biggest takeaways from the defense’s performance in Maryland’s landmark win.

The defensive backfield showed its big play ability

Much was made of the talent the Terps had at defensive back coming into this season, and that was on full display Saturday night.

Led by sophomore safety Nick Cross, Maryland’s defense continually shut down the Penn State passing attack, as the skilled duo of tight end Pat Freiermuth and wide receiver Jahan Dotson struggled to find any openings in the secondary all night long. Defensive coordinator Jon Hoke utilized a host of different defensive backs to stifle the Nittany Lions through the air, with a mixture of upper and underclassmen putting on a clinic in pass defense.

“Everybody comes in wanting to make an impact and make play,” Cross said. “[The young guys] come into big moments like this and they’re able to make a big impact you know. They’re prepared for it so you know I’m really happy for them.”

Clifford threw for 340 yards through the air on 27-of-57 passing, but it was a much more difficult evening for the junior quarterback than the numbers would suggest. Tight coverage across the field and aggressive play-calling by the Terps led to Clifford being held up behind his offensive line for long spells, often forcing him to escape the pocket and try to make difficult throws or scramble.

“You gotta credit Maryland, their [defensive backs] were doing a great job down the field with a lot of downfield throws,” Penn State receiver Jahan Dotson said. The deep safety, Nick Cross, he was doing a hell of a job on the hashes making plays on the ball, and their corners did a hell of a job all game.”

All the time that he spent inside the pocket, though, allowed for Maryland’s pass rush to begin to find a rhythm. The defensive line constantly won the initial push in the trenches, allowing for free rushers from the second level to plunge into the pocket and get after Clifford, who was sacked seven times in the contest.

Linebacker Ruben Hyppolite II was one of the primary beneficiaries of the added lanes to the quarterback, as the freshman picked up the first two sacks of his career and showed off his ability to relentlessly pursue the passer.

He eventually began to try to force the ball into coverage down the field, where Maryland’s defensive backs were waiting to pounce.

Cross, as well as Antwaine Richardson, Tarheeb Still, Jordan Mosley, Kenny Bennett, Jakorian Bennett and Deonte Banks never panicked once the ball was in the air, and instead made sure they got their heads around to make plays on the ball.

“We committed to challenging their young receivers out on the perimeter with our young [defensive backs],” Locksley said. “Our safeties, Nick Cross did a good job keeping everything out in front of him. So it was how we game-planned, it worked really well. Our defensive staff, John [Hoke] and his staff, did a great job of executing.”

Clifford continued to force balls down the field as the game progressed, even in double coverage in some instances, in an effort try to get his team back in the ballgame. However, the Terp defensive backs refused to allow any kind of comeback effort, as Cross and Bennett each picked off Clifford in the second half to put an end to two consecutive Penn State drives.

Maryland’s rush defense was much improved

The Terp defense has been far from stellar so far this season, with its biggest weakness through the first two games of the season being its inability to effectively stop the run.

Northwestern and Minnesota combined to rush for 587 yards and nine touchdowns against the unit, which ranked 113th out of 115 FBS schools in rushing defense. Facing a Penn State rushing attack that featured capable rushers in Devyn Ford and Caziah Holmes, a committed effort from all eleven Terps on the field neutralized the Nittany Lion ground game.

In the first half, Penn State’s stable of rushers accounted for just 66 yards on the ground, being limited to just 3.7 yards per carry. On the night, the team averaged 2.6 yards per carry and had 96 rushing yards.

“We knew that we’d have to play a gap sound football and you know, have a great gap integrity and get everybody running to the ball,” Cross said. “Penn State’s a great team, you know, they have great linemen, great running backs and a great quarterback so you know, we knew that we were going to be up for the challenge. It was just a fun time out there you know, doing what we had executed in practice.”

Much of that can be accounted to the play of Maryland’s defensive line and linebackers, with with the likes of defensive tackles Sam Okuayinou and Ami Finau consistently winning the battle in the up front and linebackers Ayinde “Ace” Eley, Chance Campbell and Ruben Hyppolite II making strong tackles in the open field.

The linebacking corps of Eley, Campbell and Hyppolite II combined for 17 total tackles and six solo tackles on the evening, never allowing Penn State to establish the run throughout the game.

“Our game plan was to make Sean Clifford beat us throwing the football,” Locksley said. “Obviously we’ve had our issues with stopping the run, but we committed to playing man coverage. We committed to loading the box.”

Though Maryland’s sizable advantage on the scoreboard throughout most of the second half led to Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford having to throw the ball on almost every offensive snap, the improvement in the rush defense is worth noting.

Third down defense remains an issue

Though the rush defense was much improved, Maryland’s defensive unit struggled to get off the field on third down for much of Saturday’s contest.

Coming into the game, Maryland ranked 97th in the FBS in third down defense, allowing conversions on 48 percent of its opponent’s third down attempts. The Terps did strong job of getting Penn State into third down opportunities, but were still just as susceptible to breakdowns defensively when they needed a stop.

The Nittany Lions, picking up first downs on 9-of-20 attempts (45%) on third down throughout the game, bringing the team’s opponent third down conversion rate to 46% on the season. For an overall performance that was without many flaws from the defense, forcing the opposing offense off the field on third downs is an area where there is room for improvement.