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With improved health, Terps defense shows it's better than advertised

In the back of one of the Maryland football team's meeting rooms is a wall-length board that lists the Terps' depth chart, recruiting targets and players unavailable for their next game because of injury.

The defense's depth chart has been shuffled on a near-weekly basis because of various short- and long-term injuries to key players.

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But Saturday's 20-19 win at Penn State showed the type of defense the Terps believe they can have when it's at or near full strength.

Maryland (6-3) had four sacks, numerous other pressures and forced three turnovers. The Terps limited Nittany Lions running backs to 65 yards on 29 carries. And with the game on the line and Maryland clinging to a one-point lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter, the defense recovered a fumble that sealed the victory.

"I think things have shown that when we were healthy and we had all of our components out there, we've played well," Terps coach Randy Edsall said in his weekly teleconference Sunday, "and I thought yesterday, we played well."

Despite entering Saturday ranked second to last in the Big Ten Conference in total defense, Maryland has played mostly well in games in which it has had starting linebackers Cole Farrand and L.A. Goree, both seniors.

Farrand missed much of the Aug. 30 game against James Madison and the Sept. 20 game at Syracuse. Goree missed the game against West Virginia the week before because of a back injury and was not fully recovered against the Orange.

Among the six games both have started, Maryland held South Florida to 17 points, limited a then-healthy and capable Indiana offense to nine points through three-plus quarters, and held Iowa to 21 points until the Hawkeyes scored 10 points in the final three minutes. Then, on Sunday, Penn State finished with just 219 yards of total offense.

While the Terps were pushed around in a 52-24 loss to Ohio State on Oct. 4, they limited Wisconsin star running back Melvin Gordon to 3.8 yards per carry until beginning to wear down midway through the third quarter in a 52-7 loss. Even in that blowout, two of Wisconsin's first six scoring drives began inside Maryland territory. The Badgers started two of the other six at their own 43-yard line or better.

"When we execute at a high level and we run to the football, I think we always have a chance, regardless of who's out there, to be really good," Edsall said.

Maryland also has gotten big contributions from sophomore cornerback Will Likely, sophomore outside linebacker Yannick Ngakoue and senior defensive end Andre Monroe, among others.

Likely leads the Big Ten with five interceptions and has returned two for touchdowns. Ngakoue is tied for second in the conference with 12.5 tackles for losses and also has 5.5 sacks, and Monroe is third in the Big Ten with 7.5 sacks.

Senior nose tackle Darius Kilgo has seven tackles for losses. Senior defensive end Keith Bowers has 14 tackles and 1.5 sacks in the past four games. Senior outside linebacker Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil (Towson High) has contributed as a situational player, and senior outside linebacker Matt Robinson (Atholton) is valuable when healthy.

The big question mark for Maryland is the secondary. The Terps lost starting cornerback Alvin Hill for the year to a knee injury and were forced to move Sean Davis from safety to cornerback Saturday with Hill's replacement, senior Jeremiah Johnson, limited by a hamstring injury.

While Johnson has started since 2012, Maryland has two inexperienced players behind him, sophomore Jarrett Ross and freshman Josh Woods (McDonogh).

Maryland also has gotten subpar play from its safeties. Davis has beaten for several big plays in coverage, including three touchdowns against West Virginia, and fellow safety Anthony Nixon has not made many impact plays. Since intercepting a pass in the season opener, Nixon does not have any interceptions or forced fumbles and has just one pass defended.

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