In aggressive shift, Terps secondary improves

Maryland's Anthony Nixon, left, intercepts a pass intended for Michigan State's Gerald Holmes during the second quarter, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, in East Lansing, Mich.
Maryland's Anthony Nixon, left, intercepts a pass intended for Michigan State's Gerald Holmes during the second quarter, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, in East Lansing, Mich. (Al Goldis / Associated Press)

COLLEGE PARK — The day Mike Locksley was elevated to Maryland interim coach from offensive coordinator after Randy Edsall was fired, he met with defensive coordinator Keith Dudzinski.

The pair discussed how they wanted to approach the final half of the season, and they settled on a plan that has been seen in all three phases: aggression from the offense, defense and special teams.


Over the past few weeks, Dudzinski's defense has sent more pressure after opposing quarterbacks, forcing quicker decisions and leaving Maryland's defensive backs on islands in man coverage to make plays. In last weekend's 24-7 loss to No. 9 Michigan State, the Maryland defense allowed 17 points — the Spartans also returned an interception for a touchdown — which was the fewest allowed by the Terps since their 35-17 win over South Florida on Sept. 19.

On Saturday, the revamped defense faces a tough task in Indiana. The Hoosiers rank first in the Big Ten Conference in total offense (467.5 yards per game), second in pass offense (269.6), third in rushing offense (197.9) and fourth in scoring offense (33.3 points per game). The progress made by Maryland since embarrassing September losses to Bowling Green and West Virginia will be tested.


"You don't want to give up a big play, but if they're playing with a lot of confidence and they feel good about the matchups, you feel a lot more confident about calling some more of those pressures," Dudzinski said. "If they get over the top on you quickly, sometimes you might have to pull it in a little bit. Our guys, I think they like the aggressive style, but we've got to be smart about doing those things. But our guys have done a great job in stepping up to the challenge of it."

While Dudzinski has dialed up the pressure from defensive ends Yannick Ngakoue and Jesse Aniebonam, along with defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson and the linebackers, it has left the Maryland defensive backs in one-on-one situations. The defensive switch from a 3-4 to Dudzinski's 4-3 defense meant more man coverage for the defensive backs, and initially, Maryland struggled.

Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson passed for 491 yards and six touchdowns in the Falcons' 48-27 win on Sept. 12. Two weeks later, West Virginia quarterback Skyler Howard completed 63.6 percent of his passes for 294 yards and four touchdowns in the Mountaineers' 45-6 blowout victory.

But over the past three games, Maryland hasn't allowed a quarterback to throw for more than 188 yards, and the Terps are holding quarterbacks to a 48.8 completion percentage. They've intercepted opposing quarterbacks three times while allowing two touchdown passes in that span.

In the loss to Michigan State, Maryland knocked around Spartans star quarterback Connor Cook, who combined with backup Tyler O'Connor to complete 12 of 32 passes for 121 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.

"On the back end, just having that communication down pat," cornerback Will Likely said. "It was kind of shaky from the start, kind of like miscommunication, but we put that behind us. We actually started good communication, and we've been playing very well."

Despite the better performance, there have still been a few points of struggle for the Terps. In No. 25 Wisconsin's 31-24 win on Nov. 7, Badgers quarterback Joel Stave was 12-for-16 for 168 yards and a touchdown in the second half, with his offense switching to more three-step drops to counteract Maryland's pass rush.

The pass rushing crew of Ngakoue, Aniebonam, Jefferson and defensive end Roman Braglio has been effective. Ngakoue has 12 1/2 sacks and could set the program's single-season record against Indiana. Jefferson (6 1/2 sacks), Aniebonam (3 1/2) and Braglio (three) have been at home in opposing backfields, forcing quarterbacks to make quicker decisions.

The Terps have 34 sacks this season and have at least four in six games.

"That makes our job much easier, knowing those guys have confidence and those guys are getting back to the quarterback," Likely said. "The quarterback is only going to have about two seconds to hold on to the ball, and we've just got to cover it. That takes the load off our back and it's a collective effort. Sometimes we have to cover very well to get them a cover sack. It works hand in hand."

There has been test after test this season for the Maryland defense. In September, it was the high-octane offenses of Bowling Green and West Virginia. In October, Ohio State's arsenal and Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg's arm were too much for the Terps. Last weekend, it was a likely first-round draft pick in Cook, and this weekend its Indiana's quarterback-running back duo of Nate Sudfeld and Jordan Howard.

The challenges continue. But a new defensive philosophy and more consistent play seem to have the Terps on solid ground. And they expect that to continue.


"I love playing high-energy games," Ngakoue said. "I love competition, just to see where you're at as a team. We faced great competition. I feel like we responded good. Just got to fix a lot of stuff. We've got two games left. We've just got to fix a lot of stuff so we can get two wins."

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