COLLEGE PARK — If there is one surprise for the Maryland football team three games into the 2019 season, it’s how aggressive and, at times, opportunistic the Terps have been on defense.
In their 63-20 demolition of then-No. 21 Syracuse on Sept. 7 at Maryland Stadium, the Terps sacked Orange quarterback Tommy DeVito four times and converted two first-half turnovers into touchdowns.
Even in the 20-17 loss to Temple a week later, the defense played well enough to win, and Maryland would have if not for offensive struggles near the goal line.
“Some games the defense is going to have to pick up the offense, and there’s going to be games where the offense is going to have to pick us up,” redshirt sophomore linebacker Ayinde Eley said Tuesday. “As long as we play to our standard — offense and defense — I think we’ll be in every game.”
Going into Friday’s Big Ten opener against No. 12 Penn State (3-0) at Maryland Stadium, first-year coach Mike Locksley knows the defense will face its biggest challenge to date.
Despite the graduation of star quarterback Trace McSorley, now a rookie with the Ravens, the Nittany Lions have more than enough offensive firepower to make Locksley nervous.
Locksley seemed incredulous when a reporter mentioned after practice Tuesday that Penn State might not have the same caliber of “dynamic,” big-name players as it had with McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley.
“Really?” Locksley said, chuckling slightly, his bulging eyeballs expressing his skepticism. “No. 1 is dynamic, KJ Hamler. Dynamic. Tight end [Pat] Freiermuth. Dynamic. We’ve got some issues.
“When you attack people, you want to find a way to neutralize, we call them ‘game-plan wreckers,’ the guys that have the ability to wreck your game plans and [Hamler] is one of those guys.”
Aside from Hamler, a redshirt sophomore wide receiver who has caught 10 passes for 245 yards and two touchdowns this season, Locksley also said redshirt sophomore quarterback Sean Clifford has the talent to beat the Terps. Clifford took over when McSorley graduated and heir apparent Tommy Stevens transferred to Mississippi State in May.
“The quarterback has played phenomenal,” Locksley said of Clifford, who has passed for for 976 yards with 14 completions of 20-plus yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. He also has run for 113 yards on 25 carries, including a 58-yard run against Buffalo.
“He has the ability to pull the ball down and run, and has the athleticism to do some of the things they’ve done on offense when they had Trace McSorley,” Locksley continued. “But he can make all the throws.”
Locksley said stopping Penn State’s offense will start with putting pressure on Clifford, who has been sacked three times in each of the past two games.
“Anytime you can affect the quarterback, that’s the first part of playing good defense,” Locksley said. “The sacks and some of the negative[-yardage] plays that we’ve created. Some of them have been based off of scheme. Coach [Jon] Hoke and the defensive staff have done a great job of putting the playmakers in position to make big plays on that side of the ball.
“Some of it has been individual efforts. [Linebacker] Keandre Jones has shown the ability or knack to rush the passer. Just with the relentlessness that he plays with on every play, he gives himself a chance to have success. We want to be an aggressive defense. I’m not a bend-don’t-break conservative personality in terms of how we play and Jon has philosophically given me the things I’m looking for out of our defense.”
Maryland goes into the game ranked sixth among Football Bowl Subdivision teams in sacks (4.33 a game), third-down efficiency (23.9%) and red-zone defense (60%).
The Terps are 14th in scoring defense (13.3 points against per game) and 27th in total defense (298.3 yards). Maryland has also forced six fumbles, recovering four, and has two interceptions.
In its last game, Maryland was a little too anxious to get to Temple quarterback Anthony Russo. The Terps were called for being offside twice in the first half, once negating an interception by Eley. They only sacked Russo once on 37 pass attempts, as he passed for 277 yards and three touchdowns. He was intercepted once, by sophomore Chance Campbell (Calvert Hall) in the second half.
The inability to get to Russo, especially in the second half, also led to two pass interference calls and a holding call on senior cornerback Tino Ellis.
“As a defense, we want to be real aggressive and assignment-sound,” graduate transfer linebacker Shaq Smith said Monday after practice. “We feel like if we do that, we can line up and play against anybody in the country.
“We feel like if we can win our area, win our space, do our job, do our alignment, we can be one of the most dominant defenses in the country. We’ve shown flashes of that, but still have a lot of work to do and a lot of areas to get better.”
Along with Hamler and Clifford, Locksley said he also is concerned with Penn State’s tight ends, in particular Freiermuth, a 6-foot-5, 256-pound sophomore whose size and mobility could present “matchup issues.”
While Penn State coach James Franklin has not settled on a featured back to replace Miles Sanders, who took over after Barkley left, Locksley called redshirt sophomore Journey Brown and sophomore Ricky Slade “big, dynamic home-run hitters.”
For the first time since the Maryland last beat the Nittany Lions in 2014, the Terps might also have enough speed and playmakers on defense to slow Penn State. The addition of Smith and Jones at linebacker, as well as the maturation of Eley, has helped. Jones has 3½ sacks, tied for third in the Big Ten with Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos and tied for eighth in the country.
Eley said the combination of the speed and Hoke’s attacking scheme has led to the improvement of a defense that finished last season ranked 63rd overall (390.4 yards allowed per game) and 70th in third-down efficiency (39.1%).
But it comes back to a basic tenet that has in recent years eluded the Terps.
“When you look at it, it’s all 11 guys doing their job,” said Eley, whose 18 tackles rank second on the team behind senior safety Antoine Brooks Jr. (25). “Just working for a common goal. We have the mindset that we’re trying to get to the ball and get the ball back to offense.”
NO. 12 PENN STATE@MARYLAND
Friday, 8 p.m.
Radio: 1300 AM; 980 AM