As devastating as Maryland’s rash of injuries to its quarterbacks has been this season, the loss of senior linebacker Jesse Aniebonam has proved to be equally troubling.
Aniebonam barely got his season started when he broke his ankle in the season-opening win at Texas. But the attention the Longhorns paid to Maryland’s sack leader last year opened the door for others.
That door, the one leading to opposing quarterbacks, has been slammed shut the past three games.
Going into Saturday's home game against Northwestern, the Terps have not had a sack since getting five against Texas and four the following week against Towson.
It marks the first time Maryland has not had a sack in three straight games since that statistic was first kept for the Terps in 1999. Maryland had 38 sacks in coach DJ Durkin’s first season, nine by Aniebonam.
“We’re always trying to get sacks. We spend a lot of our time developing those packages,” defensive coordinator Andy Buh said Wednesday. “We’re never playing back to let them throw the ball underneath.
“We’re developing plans to attack. We’re an attack defense. There’s multiple reasons why [sacks] haven’t happened. We just in a little slump there. We’ll pick it up, hopefully this week.”
Asked how difficult it has been to replace Aniebonam, who led the Terps in sacks last season despite what Durkin called a “part-time role,” Buh wouldn’t sugarcoat what has been an obvious deficiency.
"We don’t have too many guys that look, that run and explode off the ball like Jesse,” Buh said. “For the record, we lost a good pass rusher, a good player. Those aren’t easy to come by. We’re looking for those in recruiting.
“We’re developing those guys on our roster, growing them into that. When you lose a player of that caliber, it definitely takes a toll. But we have more than capable guys on our roster. We’re going to do it in different ways and find different matchups.”
Senior Chandler Burkett, who was moved from defensive end to linebacker when Aniebonam was injured, believes that the Terps have the kinds of players to make up for Aniebonam’s loss. Burkett, who emerged late last season as a capable pass rusher, has yet to get a sack this season.
“I guess you can say, not that we’ve had bad effort, but we need more effort,” Burkett said Wednesday. “We need to help the team, as a defensive line, as a front seven, getting to the quarterback. That’s got to be a big emphasis for us.”
The problem of replacing Aniebonam, whose 30 quarterback hurries last season were the most among outside linebackers in the Big Ten playing in a 3-4 defense, has been compounded by the types of opposing quarterbacks the Terps have faced recently.
While Central Florida’s McKenzie Milton and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett are generally considered dual threats who might be more adept at running than throwing, Minnesota’s Conor Rhoda is widely viewed as a pocket passer.
“It’s two-fold,” Durkin said Tuesday. “Some of the things we’ve done schematically was to eliminate areas for the quarterback — when you have mobile quarterbacks — to run and escape, you get a great pass rush and they dunk under it, and they have a long scramble.
“Some of it is by design, some of it is that we’ve got to do a better job of winning our one-on-one matchups or calling pressures in certain situations. We’ve probably been lower on pressure calls than normal, but a lot of it is who is back there. … He can beat you running the ball as well. You’ve always got to be conscious of rush lanes and keep the ball in front of you.”
Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound junior who has started since the beginning of his freshman year, had a 42-yard touchdown run in a win over Stanford in the 2015 opener and also rushed for 126 yards, including a 68-yard touchdown, in a win later that season over Nebraska.
With inconsistent play from his offensive line the past two seasons, Thorson has struggled at times. In the past two weeks, in losses at then-No. 10 Wisconsin and at home last Saturday to then-No. 4 Penn State, Thorson has been sacked a dozen times, including eight by the Badgers.
“He’s got a great arm. At times he can run, and when he needs to run, he will,” Burkett said. “You’ve got to be prepared for both. You can’t neglect one of the two because he’s a good athlete, so you don’t want to short-sell him of his talents.”
Senior safety Josh Woods (McDonogh) acknowledges that a lack of a sustained pass rush gives quarterbacks time to extend plays, and affords them an ability to find room to run and locate receivers who might have been covered.
“There’s definitely an emphasis on caging the quarterback,” Woods said Tuesday. “But it’s football. Those guys are on scholarship, too. They’re going to make plays just like we want to make plays. It’s just part of the game. Guys just have to make plays when the ball’s in their [area]. It’s that simple.”