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Terps

Maryland football’s offense went from a strength to a weakness. The Terps want to regain their edge.

At one point not so long ago, Maryland football’s offense was methodical.

The Terps jumped on their opponents early and often during the first two months of the season. Running back Roman Hemby would exploit gaps created by the offensive line for big gains, while his counterpart, fellow redshirt freshman Antwain Littleton II, used his size to run over defenders. Redshirt junior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa spread the ball efficiently to his talented wide receivers.

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Maryland’s high-scoring, pick-your-poison offense was the driving force in a 6-2 start that made it bowl-eligible for the second straight season under fourth-year coach Mike Locksley.

The Terps (6-4, 3-4 Big Ten Conference) have looked far different since their bye week, as their biggest strength has become their biggest weakness. They have looked anemic during their two-game losing streak, having scored just 10 points against Wisconsin — a late touchdown drive salvaging what was an offensive nightmare to that point — and zero against then-No. 14 Penn State. After Maryland recorded just 134 yards in a 30-0 loss to the Nittany Lions, Locksley pledged to take a deep look into what has gone wrong.

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“The last two weeks are on me as a leader to get our team to play up to our standard,” he said, “and that’s what I intend to do.”

Over the past two weeks, Maryland has averaged 161.5 yards per game and fewer than 3 yards per play. Against the Nittany Lions, the Terps looked completely out of sync, averaging 2.2 yards per play and going 4-for-15 on third down.

The quick starts from September and October have disappeared. The Terps have been outscored 28-0 in the first quarter over their last three games; against Penn State, they recorded just minus-10 yards on their opening three possessions.

Locksley pointed to the trenches, particularly on offense, as the biggest reason for the Terps’ struggles against the Big Ten’s elite. “This league entails being able to win up front, making sure that we have the ability to run the ball,” he said.

The unsteady play of the offensive line has made it hard for Maryland to establish any rhythm in the passing or running game. The Terps have averaged just 86 rushing yards the past two games, a far cry from the 172 against Indiana, 175 against Michigan State and even the 128 against then-No. 4 Michigan.

Hemby, a former John Carroll standout, averaged 67 rushing yards against Wisconsin and Penn State, while Littleton only carried the ball 12 times for 22 yards.

Maryland’s offensive line struggles have also forced Tagovailoa, who has been slowed by a sprained MCL that sidelined him against Northwestern, to deal with more pressure than he has all season. He’s been sacked 12 times since returning from the injury after having been sacked just nine times in the first seven games.

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In the loss to Penn State, Tagovailoa, who completed 11 of 22 passes for 74 yards, was pressured on 51.6% of his drop-backs. He took seven sacks for a loss of 49 yards.

Maryland offensive lineman Jaelyn Duncan, right, looks to block for quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, left, during last Saturday's game against Penn State in State College, Pennsylvania.

“He’s been beaten up the last couple of games,” Locksley said. “He’s got sacked 12 times in the last two games. That’s a lot of hits on the quarterback. It’s my job to make sure we’re doing things to get them protected and calling things that allow him to get the ball out of his hands quicker.”

Redshirt senior offensive lineman Spencer Anderson said the group has taken “ownership” of the fact they haven’t been playing their best in front of Tagovailoa lately. “As long as we do our job up front,” he said, “everybody else can succeed.”

Locksley said the team has put the focus this week on being more physical at the line of scrimmage. He is hoping to get some reinforcements on the offensive line, with redshirt junior Mason Lunsford, who missed the last two games with a concussion, expected to play Saturday against No. 2 Ohio State. During Lunsford’s absence, senior offensive lineman Johari Branch moved to left guard and freshman Coltin Deery started at center.

“I think the hardest place for young guys to come in and play early is in the trenches,” Locksley said. “You don’t have that experience [and] grown-man strength that comes with a full toolbox. [Deery] had a really good understanding of our system from the time he spent sitting in meetings. But the physicality piece is where we had to get him caught up to speed and I think he’s progressing as well as a freshman could.”

With Branch potentially moving back to center, Locksley said the team will have a stronger presence in the A gap, where opponents have taken advantage to collapse the pocket. “Over the last couple of games, we’ve put a big emphasis on solidifying and being firmer in the middle of pocket,” he said. “[Tagovailoa] is not a 6-[foot-]2 guy, so having that A and B gap [defender] as far away from him [as possible] allows him to have the vision necessary to make the throws.”

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Locksley, however, spread the blame for the offensive struggles. He said Tagovaolia needs to be more disciplined in the pocket and avoid staring at the pass rush. On film, Locksley said, he’s noticed moments when Tagovailoa should’ve gotten the ball out quickly to open wide receivers instead of taking the sack.

Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa (3) scrambles during last Saturday's game against Penn State in State College, Pennsylvania.

Since the bye week, Maryland hasn’t had a receiver record more than three receptions in a game. Tagovailoa hopes to get back to the basics with his footwork, making better decisions and identifying coverages. “I gotta get this thing back on track,” he said.

Tagovailoa was held to fewer than 100 passing yards in the past two games while attempting 12 passes beyond 10 yards, but Locksley isn’t concerned about those numbers. Because of poor weather conditions against the Badgers and Nittany Lions, Maryland ran the ball 63% of the time.

“Balance isn’t necessarily throwing or running it for a certain amount of yards,” Locksley said. “It’s being able to do both when you need to. And when we play in some of the elements we’ve played in, we need to run the ball.”

Ultimately, Locksley said, the only way the Terps will turn things around is to execute the plays that are called.

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“Every play you draw up is designed to work because you got everybody blocked on paper,” he said. “But it takes one or two guys to not make the block, and now [the play] doesn’t work. I don’t have a problem with the play calling as much as our execution of it.”

No. 2 Ohio State at Maryland

Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

TV: Chs. 2, 7

Radio: 105.7 FM

Line: Ohio State by 27 1/2


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