The first half of Maryland football’s loss to Wisconsin on Saturday wasn’t pretty.
Behind a strong offensive line, running backs Braelon Allen and Isaac Guerendo stretched the Terps’ defense sideline-to-sideline, totaling 211 yards and two touchdowns on the ground to give the Badgers a 17-3 halftime lead.
Maryland made the necessary defensive adjustments and limited Wisconsin to six points and 67 rushing yards on 20 carries in the second half. But unlike previous games this season, the Terps’ offense couldn’t bail them out, costing Maryland (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten) a chance to jump into the Associated Press Top 25 rankings for the first time since 2019.
One of Maryland’s biggest weaknesses this season has been its first-half defense. The Terps have allowed an average of 14.6 points in the first half, but their high-scoring offense has managed to put up enough points to keep pace. Against the Badgers, the defense dug an early hole an uncharacteristically sluggish offense couldn’t dig out of.
“It’s about execution and mental focus,” junior linebacker Ruben Hyppolite II said of the team’s defensive woes in the first half. “That is the one thing we have to lock in on.”
Through nine games, Maryland has allowed 1,943 total yards in the first half, an average of 215.8 per game. The Terps have given up 200 or more yards in the first half in four games, including 336 in a 34-27 win over SMU. Mustangs quarterback Tanner Mordecai torched Maryland’s secondary with 265 passing yards in the opening two quarters.
Coach Mike Locksley attributed the Terps’ first-half defensive woes to opponents exploiting the edges, especially Wisconsin. Wide receiver Skyler Bell caught Maryland off guard with a 36-yard gain on a jet sweep in the second quarter before Guerendo ran down the sideline for an 89-yard touchdown.
“We got sealed inside then [Wisconsin] got the ball rolling off the edge,” Locksley said.
Northwestern — which ranks 103rd nationally in rushing offense at 123.7 yards per game — also took advantage of the Terps’ soft run defense, rushing for 111 yards in the first half in Maryland’s 31-24 win.
“Northwestern had a lot of time to prepare for us,” sophomore safety Dante Trader Jr. said. “They gave us multiple [looks] that we didn’t prepare for.”
Mental errors and mistakes have been the biggest issue. With Maryland leading then-No. 4 Michigan 13-10 late in the first half of last month’s meeting in Ann Arbor, the Terps’ defense failed to line up correctly on a crucial fourth-and-1, leading to a 33-yard touchdown run by running back Blake Corum that gave the Wolverines a lead it would never relinquish. In the second quarter of Maryland’s 38-33 win over Indiana in Week 7, quarterback Connor Bazelak took advantage of blown coverage to throw a 44-yard touchdown pass to wide-open running back Josh Henderson.
“In practice, our defensive coordinator [Brian] Williams continues to preach that to us,” Hyppolite said. “It’s just mental focus, nothing as far as scheme.”
Although Maryland has had its fair share of struggles in the first half, the Terps’ second-half defense should not go unnoticed. Maryland has allowed 8.5 points per game in the second half while only giving up 13 points in the third quarter all season, the second-lowest total in the country. Maryland has outscored opponents 54-13 in the third and held six teams — including Purdue, Michigan and Wisconsin — scoreless in that frame.
After Wisconsin ran all over the field in the first half, the Terps managed to limit the Badgers to 13 rushing yards in the third quarter.
“We’ve played better defense in the second half,” Locksley said. “Once we get an idea of how they are attacking us, we [get] things adjusted at halftime and make the necessary corrections.”
Maryland’s day-and-night performance has made it hard to get a read on the true identity of its defense.
As Maryland gears up for its next two games against No. 14 Penn State and No. 2 Ohio State — two of the highest-scoring teams in the Big Ten — it will be essential for the Terps to finally strike a balance on defense so they can remain competitive for an entire game.
“Honestly, we didn’t coach very well and play very well,” Locksley said of his team’s performance against Wisconsin. “With that being said, I still have a lot of confidence in this team.”
Maryland at No. 14 Penn State
Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
TV: Chs. 45, 5
Radio: 105.7 FM
Line: Penn State by 10 1/2