Maryland defense has made its mark on fourth down

Big plays tend to echo. And few plays have echoed more this season than Maryland's fourth down, goal-line stop against Navy in the season opener — a stop that has been repeated in various forms in three games since.

In Saturday's 24-21 win over Boston College, the Terps stopped the Eagles on fourth down on consecutive drives in the last five minutes. On the second stop, linebacker Adrian Moten and defensive tackle Joe Vellano tackled running back Montel Harris — the Atlantic Coast Conference's leading rusher — for no gain on fourth-and-1 from the Boston College 44.

While Maryland does not possess the ACC's best defense — it ranks fifth statistically — the Terps are first in red-zone defense and have been particularly stout on fourth-and-short late in games. The Terps (5-2, 2-1 ACC), who host Wake Forest on Saturday, have had late fourth-down stops in wins over Navy, Florida International, Duke and Boston College.

Maryland is one win away from becoming bowl eligible, one of its season goals. Wake Forest (2-5, 1-3 ACC) has lost five games in a row. It's the third straight week Maryland will face a team that has lost at least three consecutive games immediately before meeting the Terps.

Maryland's defensive success on fourth-and-short began against Navy at M&T Bank Stadium. With the Terps ahead, 17-14, safety Kenny Tate slammed into Ricky Dobbs before the Navy quarterback could cross the goal line on fourth-and-1. There were just 37 seconds remaining when the play began, and Maryland ran out the clock.

"We just take pride in saying that we're not going to give up a touchdown," said Tate, who is big enough at 6 feet 4, 220 pounds to play goal-line downs like a linebacker. "It's like somebody coming into your house and taking anything that they want. If anything, we can give up three points. That's a huge, four-point swing in a game that could be the difference."

The Navy stop on Sept. 6 planted the seed. After the play, Maryland defensive players Drew Gloster and Alex Wujciak raced from the pile with their arms extended. The win snapped a seven-game losing streak from last season.

"Oh, that was the biggest play of the season," Tate said. "That definitely set the tone in saying that we could be good in the red zone, we can stop the run when we have to. And it's proved to be that way so far."

Maryland typically works on goal-line defense at the end of practice. But coach Ralph Friedgen said such plays are more about will and pride than about tactics.

"I think that's more of a testimony to our kids than our scheme. Our scheme is good, but they've got to execute it," Friedgen said.

"One of the things I kind of [emphasized] going into the Boston College game is that Harris always falls forward. When they went for the fourth-down play, I believe Vellano and Moten made the initial hit. And you could see it was a matter of wills. He was fighting to get forward and we were fighting to push him back and then [cornerback Cameron] Chism came in and finally finished it off."

Even before the season began, Maryland's defense aggressively competed with the team's offense on goal-line plays.

Many Terps still remember a play during spring workouts when the defense claims to have stopped running back Davin Meggett in a scrimmage at Byrd Stadium. The offense said Meggett got into the end zone.

"That one play with Meggett I remember. It was down there," Wujciak said, gesturing toward Byrd Stadium and smiling. "It's still in controversy right now."

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

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