A nearly constant refrain for Maryland interim football coach and offensive coordinator Matt Canada throughout this season has been about correcting one of the team’s most repetitive traits — committing penalties.
Even in their 42-13 win over Minnesota in the Big Ten opener Sept. 22 at Maryland Stadium, the Terps were whistled 10 times before the Gophers were penalized once. Maryland finished with 118 penalty yards.
Just as he diverted from an otherwise upbeat postgame news conference before the Terps began their bye week to talk about cleaning up what has become an annoying and potentially self-destructive habit, Canada continued the discussion Tuesday.
Canada said that he puts his team’s penalties — 37, to be exact, an average of 9.25 per game, which ranks sixth-worst in the Football Bowl Subdivision — in two categories.
“There's no-talent penalties, there’s penalties when you false start or you jump offsides, things that take no talent to do,” Canada said at a weekly news conference. “It takes no talent to get off on the [snap] count, it takes no talent to line up onsides and have the right personnel in the game.
“Then you have heat-of-the-game penalties — holding, face mask, pass interference. Some of those things, which we certainly are talking about, but we want guys to play hard. We’re not going to play with fear, we’re not going to play scared, but obviously you can’t have penalties.”
Canada acknowledged that Maryland (3-1, 1-0) must play smarter Saturday against No. 15 Michigan (4-1, 2-0) in Ann Arbor to have any chance to recreate the team’s 2014 trip to “The Big House,” when the Terps beat the Wolverines, 23-16, to all but seal former coach Brady Hoke’s firing.
Among Big Ten teams this season, Maryland ranks behind only winless Nebraska (0-4, 0-2) in its average penalties per game (9.25) and average penalty yardage (90.5). The only consolation this week is that Michigan has been flagged a league-high 46 times for 421 yards (84.2 per game).
“Cleaning up penalties this week is a big thing for us because that’s just shooting ourselves in the foot,” senior defensive tackle Mbi Tanyi said after practice Tuesday night. “I feel like if we clean up a lot of penalties especially from the last time we played Minnesota we’ll be in a better position to stop the Wolverines.”
While winning games and committing penalties are clearly not mutually exclusive — unbeaten and now No. 3 Ohio State ranks right behind the Wolverines in the Big Ten with 8.4 penalties per game and 80.6 average penalty yards — the margin for error for Maryland is likely a lot smaller than for those two Big Ten powerhouses.
“I think every game is that way,” Canada said. “Every game you play comes down to three, four, five plays. Unless it’s just a lopsided game either way. I can go back through games for however many years I’ve been doing this and talk about — especially the games you lost — these were the plays.
“I can give you five plays in 2003 in a game we lost right now. Those are the ones you remember. Sometimes it is a penalty. A long touchdown … It doesn’t matter. Every game, there’s a very small margin for error. Because the momentum is a very funny thing in our sport. … Those penalties have a lot to do with that.”
Interestingly, the Terps have averaged more than twice as many penalties and more than three times the penalty yardage in the three games they’ve won — nearly 11 per game for a shade under 106 yards a game, including 14 for 139 yards in a 45-14 victory at Bowling Green on Sept. 8 — than in their only loss.
In a 35-14 defeat to Temple in the home opener Sept. 15, Maryland was called for just five penalties for 35 yards.
The calls have been fairly even between the offense and defense.
“You don’t want to have any penalties, and if you look at our [results], we’ve had two games where we’ve had quite a few,” Canada said during the weekly new conference. “One was a lot on the offense and one was a lot on the defense."
Against Bowling Green, nine of Maryland’s penalties were committed by the offense for 95 yards, including one on senior offensive tackle Derwin Gray for unsportsmanlike conduct for high-fiving with some of the team’s fans after a touchdown.
Against Minnesota, the Terps had seven defensive penalties, including four for pass interference.
Though he did not get into specifics as to how Maryland plans to cut down on penalties — perhaps by spending more practice time on technique or watching film with the team’s most penalized players — Canada hopes the message is getting through.
Admittedly, when it comes to heat-of-the-moment penalties, the line seems a bit blurred.
“Where’s that line? I’m not sure we have the answer, I’m not sure anybody has the answer,” Canada said. “We want our guys to play hard. We’ve been very proud of how hard our kids have played, how hard they’ve played together. We’re going to continue to talk about that, be positive about that.
“We can’t beat yourselves and certainly we’ve had that happen in a couple of games where we’ve cost ourselves some opportunities.We talk about it, we’re not going to slow our guys down and have them play less intense to not do that, but certainly we want to coach it. We’re working on it.”