In winning three of its first four games, the Maryland defense bent more than broke.
Giving up 1,115 yards and 99 points over the two defeats — a 62-14 loss to then-No. 10 Buckeyes in Columbus, Ohio, and a 37-21 loss to the Wildcats at home Saturday — Maryland has dropped to the bottom of the Big Ten and near the bottom of the country in defense.
The Terps are now ranked 115th out of 129 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in points allowed per game (36.5), 107th in passing defense (264.7 yards a game), 104th in total defense (439 yards per game) and 90th in sacks (1.67 a game).
Asked if he’d consider different schemes to help improve the defense, second-year Maryland coach DJ Durkin said at his weekly news conference Tuesday that it might be about physical effort and mental approach.
“There’s always times when you can have a better call in certain situations when you go back and look at it, but guys got to win one-on-ones,” Durkin said. “When you call pressure, they can keep enough guys in the blocks, someone’s got to win a one-on-one.
“That’s something we’ve got to focus on — getting back to winning those one-on-ones. It’s really an attitude and demeanor. We had played better defense at times this year, especially earlier on. I think it’s about getting back to that, having the right attitude, ‘I’m going to win, I’m going to go beat a block.’”
The biggest problem has been giving opposing quarterbacks too much time to pick apart the middle of the field or escape out of the pocket. After getting nine sacks in its first two games, Maryland went three games without a sack until picking up one against Northwestern.
“We definitely do need more pressure on the quarterback. We’ve got to affect the quarterback; that’s pretty much a staple of football — if you allow a quarterback to be patient and calm in the pocket, they usually find a guy open,” Durkin said. “We haven’t done a good enough job of disrupting the quarterback.”
Said Maryland defensive coordinator Andy Buh, “We’ve mixed it up between three-, four-, five- and six-man pressures. We emphasize beating protection schematically and winning your one-on-ones. Most blitzes are designed to get a guy one on one.”
In the past few games, the Terps have been feeling the effect of losing senior linebacker Jesse Aniebonam, who broke his ankle in the third quarter of the season-opening victory at Texas.
Aniebonam led the team in sacks last year with nine and tackles for losses with 14, while also leading Big Ten linebackers playing in 3-4 defensive schemes in quarterback hurries with 30.
“When you lose Jesse off the bat like that, it’s going to be an issue to work through,” junior defensive tackle Brett Kulka said Tuesday.
Buh said the trend has been for the Terps to wear down toward halftime, and come out a little more focused early in the second half before wearing down again. Some of it has to do with depth.
“We’ve got to do a better job of keeping guys fresh and getting new bodies in there,” Buh said Wednesday.
It’s not going to get any easier Saturday, when the Terps play at No. 5 Wisconsin. Led by sensational freshman Jonathan Taylor, the Big Ten’s leading rusher, the unbeaten Badgers lead the Big Ten in rushing (263.8 yards per game), are second in total offense (466.5 yards per game) and third in scoring (36.3 points per game).
“We’ve got to be great tacklers on defense; they run the ball hard,” Durkin said. “They’ve got a great set of backs, they carry [the offense]. They’ve got good receivers and tights ends. They take some shots down the field and have created some big plays with those guys.”
The 5-foot-11, 214-pound Taylor averages 164.3 yards per game, and has gone over 200 yards three times, including 219 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries in last week’s 17-9 win over Purdue. Taylor rushed for a career-high 249 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries in a 38-17 win at Nebraska the previous week.
“He runs physical, he’s hard to tackle,” Durkin said. “He finishes runs, he’s always falling forward. He’s got good speed, good vision and I think he understands what they do. He’s got a good understanding of where to hit it, when to be patient, how the blocks are going to unfold. It shows on tape — he’s very in sync with the offensive line and the blocking scheme.”