This new-look Terrapins defense has produced all manners of excitement through six games, from suffocating pressure to lock-down coverage to celebration heists.
Edge blitzers like Darin Drakeford and down linemen like Joe Vellano have thrived in coordinator Brian Stewart’s 3-4 scheme. True freshman Anthony Nixon has drawn rave reviews for his preparation and execution at safety. Others, like A.J. Francis, Demetrius Hartsfield, Kenneth Tate and Dexter McDougle, just to name four, have produced electric moments for a unit still ranked in the top 10 nationally.
They sandwiched a touchdown drive during Saturday’s 27-20 win over Virginia with a fumble recovery and a game-sealing series, but even though Maryland’s defense once again closed out a game in the fourth quarter, Coach Randy Edsall found much to be desired moving forward.
“I didn’t think we were as sharp as we needed to be defensively,” Edsall said during his Sunday teleconference. “We’ve got to continue to be sharp. We can’t be reading the press clippings yet. We’re playing well on defense and doing things, but we’ve got to go practice hard each and every day.”
At Scott Stadium on Saturday, Virginia tallied 13 explosive plays — defined as a rush of 12 or more yards or a pass of 16 or more yards. Before the fourth quarter, when one Cavaliers drive led by backup quarterback Michael Rocco netted three explosive passing plays for 62 combined yards, seven of Virginia’s 10 explosive plays came on the ground.
The Terps allowed a season-high 168 rushing yards, hardly eye-popping by many standards, but certainly uncharacteristic for a rush defense that entered allowing 81.00 rushing yards per game. Sophomore Kevin Parks had a career-high 129 yards, topping the 100-yard mark for the first time since Virginia’s 2011 season opener against William & Mary. Against Maryland, behind a massive offensive line, Parks broke off runs of 12, 15, 19, 21 and 26 yards, the last of which was a season-long allowed by the Terps. Three of Virginia’s explosive runs also came on third-and-long.
“We’ve got to get reenergized and focused more,” Edsall said. “We can’t be the kind of defense we want to be if we’re giving up that many big plays.”
Yet just two of those explosive plays went for touchdowns — a 20-yard bullet from Philip Sims to E.J. Scott and a 24-yard touchdown from Michael Rocco to Jake McGee. The defense bent against the run for the first time this season, but still never broke.
Edsall didn’t spend much time harping on the negatives, anyway. He was too busy raving about Francis’s blocked field goal. During Sunday’s film review, Edsall pulled up the play to show the Terps. Kicker Drew Jarrett was lined up for a 31-yarder. Francis stuck his hand up, and Jarrett drilled a low-liner perfectly into his palm, like the football wanted to high-five The Franchyze.
“The thing that’s impressive about A.J. is that he takes it serious,” Edsall said. “He doesn’t take the play off. He’s just got a knack for getting that big body skinny and slip it through that gap. Getting in the air and getting himself aligned to the trajectory of the kick.”
Sure, the kick was low. But that didn’t stop Edsall from heaping praise onto his senior lineman, using it as a teaching moment for the Terps.
“I think I could have blocked that one myself,” Edsall said. “The kicker really screwed that thing all up, but because A.J. went hard, and he did get some penetration, and was able to get his hand up, he was able to block it. If he pushed and didn’t get his hand up, it wouldn’t have been blocked. Even though the kicker didn’t kick the ball correctly, because A.J. did his thing and did what he was supposed to do, he blocked the kick.
“Every play is important and can make a difference. Just give effort, and by giving it, sometimes you’ll make something happen. Work the technique each and every time.”