The common refrain uttered by Maryland football players and coach Mike Locksley this week after Saturday night’s 43-3 pummeling by Northwestern in both teams' Big Ten season opener was that everything that went wrong can be repaired.
“Everything that we saw on tape is fixable, and that’s what we’re working on this week, fixing those things,” junior inside linebacker Ayinde Eley said. “There wasn’t anything on that tape that wasn’t fixable. So everything is fixable, and that’s what we’re working on, and we’re going to get those things fixed for Friday night.”
How effective the Terps (0-1) are at making changes could be determined in Friday’s home opener against Minnesota (0-1) at Maryland Stadium in College Park at 7:30 p.m.
Among a growing list of priorities are two that are sure to grab any defensive guru’s attention. Maryland left Saturday’s loss to the Wildcats without registering a sack or turnover — a discouraging note last accomplished Nov. 2 in a 38-7 setback to Michigan.
The lack of takeaways is even more glaring when considering that sophomore transfer quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa was intercepted three times and freshman running back Isaiah Jacobs lost a fumble off his knee on a kick return, leading to a minus-4 turnover margin.
“You don’t win many games when you do that,” Locksley said.
Last year in Locksley’s debut as coach, Maryland struggled to generate a consistent pass rush and turnovers. The defense ranked 11th of 14 in the league in takeaways (16) and 13th in sacks (21).
Pressuring opposing quarterbacks will be tougher without starting outside linebacker Durrell Nchami. Locksley, who described the redshirt sophomore as one of the team’s best rushers, said Monday that Nchami had suffered “a high-level sprain” in the first quarter Saturday. On Wednesday evening, Locksley ruled him out for Friday’s game.
Locksley said recently that he would prefer to create pressure without blitzing, but acknowledged this week that the unit might have to alter its tactics.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “I’m going to always tell you that I am an aggressive guy by nature. I don’t like to die a slow death. I’d rather be aggressive, attack more than [be] conservative. I like to have a good mixture of those things. To play good defense, you have to be smart and pick and choose your spots.”
Eley declined to question the pass-rushing strategy crafted by defensive coordinator Jon Hoke and his staff.
“I feel like our scheme is good,” he said. “Our coaches put together a good scheme and stuff. We’ve got to execute it, and that’s all it comes down to. The scheme is good. We’ve just got to execute it as players. The players make the plays, the plays don’t make the players.”
Jeremy “J” Leman, a Big Ten Network analyst who provided commentary during the Terps' loss to Northwestern and a former Illinois linebacker, said blitzing might force Maryland’s secondary to cover receivers for longer periods.
“I think there’s something to be said with a young team of keeping the ball in front of you, making the tackle, and living to fight another day,” he said. “I think that’s what they want to do. They want to stay in games as much as possible. Obviously, it didn’t work out the last game, but they want to stay in the game and build confidence. You of course build confidence when you win, but also when you’re competitive in games down the stretch and get that vital game experience where you’re going back and forth with somebody and actually fighting with them.”
Eley seemed surprised when informed that the defense failed to cause a turnover. But he said the solution for takeaways and sacks is internal.
“It’s the little things,” he said. “It’s just getting home. We always talk about you never know what is going to be the play. That play — somebody took off or you didn’t do what you were supposed to the best of your ability — could have been the play that leads to a sack. So we’ve just got to be always ready to seize our opportunities and make the most of them.”
Leman said a consistent pass rush can contribute to takeaways.
“My thing is, the No. 1 indicator of a positive turnover margin is pressure on the quarterback because he’s going to fumble the most and he’s throwing the football,” he said. “That is what is going to affect the turnovers. Turnovers are the great equalizer in football. So I think you have to make them a point of emphasis.”
Minnesota redshirt junior quarterback Tanner Morgan was sacked five times by Michigan in a 49-24 loss Saturday, was intercepted once, and lost a fumble. But redshirt junior running Mohamed Ibrahim carried 26 times for 140 yards and two touchdowns and caught four passes for 17 yards.
Ibrahim could be a difficult assignment for the Terps, who surrendered 103 yards and one score on 10 attempts to freshman running back Drake Anderson and 325 rushing yards and four touchdowns overall to the Wildcats.
Eley is familiar with Ibrahim, a Baltimore resident who played with Eley at Good Counsel in Montgomery County.
“You’ve got to tackle him,” Eley said. “He’s a hard runner, and he runs with good effort and good leverage. You’ve got to wrap up the tackle and bring your feet, and you’ve got to gang-tackle him.”
Locksley said perhaps the one silver lining is that the Gophers don’t try to hide their intention of running the ball. But that is a positive as long as Maryland can play solid rush defense.
“If you want to stop the run, you either have to add an extra guy in the box or you’ve got to do a good job of making sure that the A gap, the B gap and the C gap are controlled by players with your colored jersey on,” he said. “Too many times, we played out of gaps, and we allowed Northwestern to have their way, and they made some big plays in the run game. My expectation is that we will get that thing cleaned up this week, we’ll play our gaps with discipline, but also do a better job of attacking and adding numbers into the box because they want to run the football, and they want to take shots.”
Leman stressed there is still time for Maryland’s defense to make an impact.
“Maryland is not going to be built in a day, and Coach Locksley knows that,” he said. “I think Coach Hoke has had some great defenses in his day. So I’m not necessarily concerned. I think they’re heading in the right direction. I think they’re not nearly as bad as they played on Saturday, and Northwestern’s probably not as good offensively as they played on Saturday. So if there’s a give-and-take, I wouldn’t push the panic button just yet.”
>> The cancellation of Saturday’s Big Ten game between Wisconsin and Nebraska because of a coronavirus outbreak affecting six players and six staff members, including coach Paul Chryst, was another reminder to Locksley of the fragile nature of athletics during this time.“We’re not out of the woods yet,” he said. “I know we were fortunate to get to the first game of the year and come out pretty cleanly with it. But at any given time, the minute you decide to relax on your protocols and relax on your behavior modifications, it just shows you how quickly it can affect your team. So using Wisconsin as an example with our team, we are consistently messaging the importance of doing things the right way.”
>> Noting that the team turned the ball over four times and Northwestern kept the ball on several long drives, Locksley said Wednesday that holding the ball for only 22:39 compared to the Wildcats' 37:21 was troublesome.“Our time of possession was really lopsided. We didn’t get enough plays off. I think we had 52 gradable plays in that game, and we’re a team that wants to average as close to 80 plays per game as we can.”
>> As much as he would prefer to have fans fill Maryland Stadium on Friday night, Locksley said this is no time to look outside for inspiration. “We’ve got to bring our own juice and we’ve got to bring our own energy, including me as the head coach and our players,” he said. “This is a game that we’ve got to kind of bring it ourselves and not rely on external factors to get us motivated.”