xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

Maryland football’s defense needed to improve. Rising stars and impact freshmen are leading the way.

With the game tied at 17 in the final minutes last Friday night against Illinois, Maryland was in dire need of a stop. Illinois had first-and-10 at its own 36-yard line having just picked up a first down when Terps senior defensive lineman Greg Rose answered the call and provided the signature moment for a defense that has exceeded expectations through three weeks.

Rose, who was the second walk-on to earn a scholarship this season, recorded back-to-back sacks for losses of 11 and 7 yards, leading Illinois to punt and eventually giving Maryland possession inside enemy territory. Three plays later, Joseph Petrino kicked a 32-yard field goal as time expired to give Maryland its first 3-0 start since 2016.

Advertisement

Much was expected from the offense this season with an elite group of wide receivers and a highly-rated quarterback. The defense, however, might be making the biggest strides.

“Everybody on that defense has just played with a lot of heart, effort and grit,” Rose said. “We refuse to be denied.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Last year, the Terps allowed the second-most rushing yards (1,150) in the Big Ten. It’s still early, but Maryland’s defense has flipped the script stopping the run, as the Terps have allowed the fourth-fewest rushing yards (297) in the conference.

“Coming into the year, we made a point of emphasis on stopping the run, creating turnovers and limiting big plays,” coach Mike Locksley said. “Through three games, I’ve been pleased with it.”

An early indication of Maryland’s improvement in its run defense came during the season opener against West Virginia when the Terps held the Mountaineers to 48 rushing yards. That same West Virginia team ran for 198 yards against Long Island University and 173 yards on 33 carries against then-No. 15 Virginia Tech in a 27-21 upset.

Maryland first-year defensive coordinator Brian Stewart said the Terps’ plan is to attack the ball, whether it’s in the air of on the ground. Maryland was only able to muster two interceptions through five games in 2020. This year, it has four heading into Saturday’s matchup against Kent State.

Advertisement

“I think coach [Brian Stewart] and the defensive staff have done a great job,” Locksley said. “From last year to this year, we made a point of emphasis with the turnover differential. Last season, it was a big reason for how things ended up for us.”

Stewart said the Terps will play a lot of man coverage since they have the speed and talent in the secondary to do so. With talented defensive backs such as junior safety Nick Cross, who picked up his second interception against Illinois, and senior Jakorian Bennett, who has two takeaways, including an interception against West Virginia that led to Maryland’s final scoring drive in the fourth quarter, the Terps have the speed and versatility in the back end to execute Stewart’s game plan.

Illinois tight end Daniel Barker, right, is unable to catch a pass in the end zone from quarterback Brandon Peters as Maryland defensive back Nick Cross defends Sept. 17 in Champaign, Illinois.
Illinois tight end Daniel Barker, right, is unable to catch a pass in the end zone from quarterback Brandon Peters as Maryland defensive back Nick Cross defends Sept. 17 in Champaign, Illinois. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

“Guys are making the plays in the passing game with the interceptions,” Locksley said. “We have forced some fumbles and are very fortunate to maybe be ahead in that turnover margin as opposed to what it was.”

The Terps’ ability to create turnovers starts with the defensive line applying pressure. In the past three games, Maryland has 11 sacks, which ranks 15th in the country, and 10 quarterback hits. “[Maryland] puts pressure on the passer,” Illinois coach Bret Bielema said. “They [attacked] our edges and [did] a lot of speed rushes up the field.”

Rose and seniors Sam Okuayinonu, Ami Finau and Mosiah Nasili-Kite play with a certain chip on their shoulders as junior college transfers.

“We all understand what it is like to get out of the mud,” Rose said. “JUCO is a different type of story. When we all got here we were like, ‘Let’s show what we can do now.’ Everybody is [begging] for that one chance. When you get that one chance, you have to show what you’re going to do with it.”

Okuayinonu, a fifth-year senior that went to Mesabi Range College in Minnesota, is sixth in the nation and second in the Big Ten with four sacks. In the win over Illinois, Okuayinonu used his size to push through a pair of offensive linemen to sack Fighting Illini quarterback Brandon Peters.

“I just think being able to add this extra year has helped our team because [Okuayinonu] is as explosive as any player in the country,” Locksley said. “As he’s gained football experience in playing and taking the techniques that [defensive line coach] Brian Williams teaches him, he keeps getting better and better. I think he’s putting himself in a position where he’s creating some value that may afford an opportunity to play at the next level.”

Maryland defensive back Jakorian Bennett, right, breaks up a pass intended for Illinois wide receiver Casey Washington as Nick Cross (3) also defends Sept. 17 in Champaign, Illinois.
Maryland defensive back Jakorian Bennett, right, breaks up a pass intended for Illinois wide receiver Casey Washington as Nick Cross (3) also defends Sept. 17 in Champaign, Illinois. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

It’s not just the upperclassmen making plays, either. Locksley landed four highly rated recruits on defense, and each four-star prospect has contributed in the first three weeks.

Among those recruits is linebacker Branden Jennings, who leads the team with 14 tackles and had a forced fumble against West Virginia. Jennings is the 11th highest graded linebacker in the Big Ten, according to Pro Football Focus.

“His style of play is very physical,” Locksley said. “He throws his body around. Big energy guy, what you love to see. He’s got some natural abilities, and I think he’ll just continue to get better for us with the more experience he gains.”

Locksley will quickly tell you the Terps defense is not perfect. Though Maryland has improved its run defense and ability to create turnovers, Locksley wants the team to work on their third-down defense after allowing the Fighting Illini to convert eight of 17 opportunities.

“That resulted in 27 extra plays,” Locksley said, “so we worked hard to improve the third-down stuff.”

Week 4

KENT STATE@MARYLAND

Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

TV: Big Ten Network

Radio: 105.7 FM

Line: Maryland by 14 1/2

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement