A little over a month ago, the Maryland men's lacrosse team had the most high-powered offense in the country, a perfect record and the No. 1 ranking.
But a strength has turned into their major weakness, and as the Terps prepare to welcome No. 14 Yale to Byrd Stadium in College Park on Saturday, they have been questioning everything about their floundering attack.
After averaging 15 goals in its first six contests, Maryland is averaging 8.0 goals and has reached double digits in just one of its past four games. Perhaps not coincidentally, the team is 2-2 during that stretch, falling to the No. 6 ranking. The Terps will try to find answers against a Bulldogs defense that ranks eighth in the country.
"As an offensive player, we like to think that we're going to score 10 to 15 goals a game," said senior midfielder John Haus, a Lutherville native. "Sometimes it isn't like that, but as an offensive guy, you go into games confident and thinking that you're going to do that. If it doesn't happen, you've got to — as a team — try to battle that and win the game."
The Terps scored 11 goals in a three-goal victory over Navy on April 5 but were held to eight in a two-goal loss to then-No. 10 North Carolina on March 23, nine in a two-goal win against then-No. 13 Virginia on March 30 and then a season-low four in a three-goal setback to then-No. 15 Johns Hopkins last Saturday.
Over that same span, Maryland (8-2) has slogged through four of its five longest scoreless streaks, including a drought of 33:16 against the Tar Heels and one of 22:04 against the Blue Jays.
The inconsistencies have forced the players and coaches to go back to the drawing board.
"We've got to look at schemewise, are we putting the kids in the best possible position to be successful? And that's something the coaches are looking at," coach John Tillman said. "Are we playing the right guys at the right positions? Honestly, I think you have to do that. When you win, it's never as good as you think, and when you lose, you don't want to be too quick to go home and overhaul some things. We certainly are constantly tweaking, and as the year goes on, we're trying to figure out if guys have emerged, do we need to play guys some more? Are we dodging from the right spots?"
The Terps' issues could be traced to a pair of factors. First, the team has won just over 50 percent of its faceoffs during the four-game stretch (63.6 percent against Navy), which translates into fewer possessions on offense.
And when the unit's time with the ball is limited, the onus is on the players to capitalize on their opportunities — but they can also feel pressed to make something out of nothing. The team's two worst shooting performances of the season occurred against North Carolina (21.6 percent) and Johns Hopkins (11.1).
"We're always a little better on offense when we don't take the first shot, but we take the best shot," senior attackman Kevin Cooper (Archbishop Spalding) said. "We definitely got away from that a little bit. These are big games, and people just get anxious and people are just so excited and caught up in the moment. And they get a shot that's pretty good, a B [grade] shot, and they're going to take that most of the time. But we're usually better when we get the ball moving, get a couple slides and get the defense sliding and recovering."
Maryland's first midfield is widely regarded as one of the best in the country, but the attack has drawn scrutiny. In Saturday's loss, the starting trio of Cooper, senior Owen Blye and sophomore Jay Carlson (St. Paul's) combined for just one goal on 10 shots and one assist, and Carlson and senior Billy Gribbin were eventually replaced by freshman Dave Goodwin, who is more of a dodger behind the cage.
ESPN analyst and former Johns Hopkins All-American goalkeeper Quint Kessenich said the Terps have become more predictable on offense and lackadaisical in fundamentals such as stickwork and execution. He also said the attack needs to alleviate some of the scoring burden on the midfield.
"I like their midfield, but their attack is the question mark right now," Kessenich said. "Who can force the corners and generate shots and be an impact player from the attack position?
Cooper did not fully disagree with Kessenich's point.
"We have a really good midfield, but I feel like we have a really good attack, too," Cooper said. "But after putting up four goals against Hopkins, there's a little bit more added pressure."
Tillman expressed confidence in the attack, saying: "If you're a competitive guy and things don't go your way, you've got to critically assess what you've done and you've got to look at yourself in the mirror and say, 'All right, what can I do better?' I think our guys down there are pretty prideful. I think those guys are going to take this as a learning opportunity."
Despite the offense's struggles, Maryland has much to be optimistic about. Amato entered the week ranked in the top eight in both goals-against average (7.18) and save percentage (.589), and Bernhardt anchors a defense ranked third in the country.
The Terps have at least three more contests left on the regular-season schedule, and Haus said there is time and room for refining the offense.
"I think we're definitely evolving," he said. "There's still multiple things that myself and teammates can work on. None of us are perfect. None of us are the best that we can be."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun