As once-fearsome defense loses its edge, Terps try to find a way back to takeaways

As once-fearsome defense loses its edge, Terps try to find a way back to takeaways
Maryland's A.J. Hendy dives on a loose ball after West Virginia's Ronald Carswell botched a punt during the first quarter of the Terps' 37-0 win in September. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

COLLEGE PARK — Cole Farrand knows how Maryland's defense is supposed to look. He has an image in his mind as a perpetual reminder.

The junior said he can still visualize fellow linebacker L.A. Goree "ripping the ball" from the grasp of a West Virginia ball carrier, one of six takeaways forced by the Terps in their 37-0 victory at M&T Bank Stadium.


That was five weeks ago, but it feels like the distant past for the Terps (5-2, 1-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), who have lost two out of three heading into Saturday's homecoming game against Clemson (6-1, 4-1 ACC).

At the time of that shutout against the Mountaineers, Maryland was feasting on takeaways and sacks. Its six takeaways in that game was its highest in 12 years. The team's defensive pressure was a key in the 4-0 start that had earned the Terps a No. 25 national ranking.

Through those first four games, Maryland had 16 sacks, placing it among the Football Bowl Subdivision leaders. Maryland had 13 takeaways — tied for fifth in the nation.

But in the three games since, the Terps have zero takeaways and two sacks. Maryland has been outscored 97-10 in its two losses.

"I think it's everything," Terps defensive coordinator Brian Stewart said in explaining his team's dip in takeaways."For one, some of the teams that we're playing are pretty dynamic offensively. Two, we aren't putting any pressure on them as far as third downs, getting off the field, and that's where we got a lot of the pressure as well as our interceptions."

Injuries help explain the decline, too. In Maryland's third game — a 32-21 victory over Connecticut — senior cornerback Dexter McDougle had two interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown. But McDougle was soon heading to the locker room grimacing and holding his right shoulder.

Just like that, one of the team's best defensive playmakers was gone for the season. Others followed, including linebackers Matt Robinson (rotator cuff) and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil (pectoral injury), who had three sacks and an interception before being lost for the season after the Virginia game on Oct. 12.

Robinson, who has missed the past two games, is listed as probable for Saturday. He had 31 tackles and recovered a fumble through the first five games.

Maryland — which will play Saturday's game without injured starting quarterback C.J. Brown, running back Brandon Ross, tight end David Stinebaugh and top receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long — needs one more victory to become bowl-eligible.

"All I can say is that it's football," coach Randy Edsall said of the injuries. "This sport is pretty much 100 percent guaranteed that you're going to get hurt playing this game."

Takeaways can function as an equalizer for teams depleted by injuries. Clemson, eager to redeem itself after a 51-14 loss at Florida State last week, enters Saturday's game as a two-touchdown favorite.

As Stewart alluded to, the Terps need to be better defensively on third down. Wake Forest was 7-for-15 on third-down conversions in last week's 34-10 victory over Maryland.

"I think we just need to get better on third down and force them to throw the ball deep a little more … and get closer to the quarterback," Stewart said.

Clemson has been a difficult team to force into turnovers. The Tigers had committed just six turnovers in their first six games. But they were subpar against Florida State. Quarterback Tajh Boyd threw two interceptions, and the Tigers also lost two fumbles.


"Going into that [Florida State] ballgame we had outscored our opponents 56-0 off of turnovers," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "So that's why we're 6-0. And then we go into this game and we get outscored 24-0 off of turnovers. You can't beat bad football teams that way, much less a great team like Florida State."

Maryland (5-2, 1-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. No. 9 Clemson (6-1, 4-1 ACC)

Site: Byrd Stadium, College Park

Time: 3:30 p.m.

Broadcast: ESPN

Radio: 105.7 FM, 980 AM

Series: Clemson leads 33-26-2

Last meeting: Clemson def. Maryland, 45-10, on Nov. 10, 2012, in Clemson, S.C.

Maryland offense vs. Clemson defense: Clemson has won six straight road games and has 14 straight double-digit victories over unranked opponents. Terps will be without starting quarterback C.J. Brown (hip-oblique), running back Brandon Ross (shoulder) and top receivers Stefon Diggs (leg) and Deon Long (leg). Maryland will rely on young players such as sophomore receiver Levern Jacobs and redshirt freshman receiver Amba Etta-Tawo. Terps face challenge in protecting sophomore quarterback Caleb Rowe against the Tigers, whose 27 sacks are tied with Virginia Tech for the ACC lead. Clemson's Vic Beasley has nine sacks, second in the nation, and the Tigers' 11 interceptions ranked ninth nationally.

Clemson offense vs. Maryland defense: Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd is 27-7 as a starter. He ranks second in ACC history behind Philip Rivers in career touchdown passes with 89. Maryland hopes to get back injured linebackers Matt Robinson (rotator cuff) and Alex Twine (shoulder). Both are listed as probable. Last season, Clemson had 35 points by halftime against the Terps.