In 12 games last season, the Maryland football team intercepted four passes. One was by a linebacker. Another by a defensive lineman. Neither starting cornerback snagged a turnover.
In two games this season, the Terrapins have matched that paltry total — their lowest since at least 1948, according to the intrepid Patrick Stevens. Dexter McDougle nabbed his first interception since 2011 against Florida International, and a Jeremiah Johnson-less unit followed that up with three versus Old Dominion Saturday afternoon.
Defensive coordinator Brian Stewart spent all week drilling the dime scheme into his players, knowing full well Maryland would reveal a unique look to confuse quarterback Taylor Heinicke. The plan was simple: stack defensive backs to crowd the secondary and rotate looks to disguise blitzes so Heinicke’s pre-snap reads break down soon after the play begins.
“I think we kept them guessing,” said cornerback Isaac Goins, who caught one of Heinicke’s three picks. “I think that he never knew exactly what we were in. He knew what we were going, what we could run. But I felt he never knew what we were in. That’s why we were able to get interceptions today.”
Reviewing Saturday’s broadcast reveals a different look for each of Heinicke’s misfires, each turnover caused by something slightly different.
First, a baseline reference. Maryland started three safeties, three defensive backs, two down linemen and three outside linebackers. Its starting nose guard — Roman Braglio — was handpicked thanks to his agile frame and quickness off the snap. Stewart wanted matchup exploitation up front, and he got it with Braglio and end Quinton Jefferson.
Middle linebacker Cole Farrand played sparingly. Yannick Cudjoe-Virgil and Marcus Whitfield are Maryland’s two best blitzing linebackers, and Matt Robinson, a former safety, was needed in coverage.
Here, on the first play from scrimmage, Maryland has a linebacker down and another hedging blitz through the A gap. This deception informs the unit’s success. Usually when one player aggressively approaches the line and shows a blatant blitz, another flies in from the opposite side.
Third and 12 at Old Dominion 25-yard line
Old Dominion’s first two plays were defended perfectly by Maryland. A.J. Hendy snuffed out a short pass on first down and Whitfield blew up Heinicke’s scramble attempt on second down. So the Monarchs took a deep shot on third and long.
On his pre-snap read, Heinicke sees Cudjoe-Virgil staring through the B gap and cornerback Will Likely on press coverage in the slot. The Terps ran this exactly same defense on first down with Likely blitzing from the left side, but because Heinicke completed his pass to the opposite direction, he probably didn’t see the strong-side pressure.
“It helps getting the ball out so fast, so when we’re in coverage where we have to man up, we don’t have to cover a guy for four or five seconds, just one or two,” safety Sean Davis said. “That was our game plan, to pressure the quarterback, hit him, so if we were in man we didn’t have to be in man forever. We trusted the D-line to do their job and make the ball come out hot. I thought they did a good job of doing that.”
Except here, Likely provided the pressure. As Heinicke snaps the ball, Cudjoe-Virgil pivots back and drops into coverage, with a safety handling the slot receiver. Likely bolts off the line and beelines straight for Heinicke. As Heinicke aims for his receiver on a go-route, Likely reaches the quarterback. Heinicke’s pass is underthrown and Goins outjumps the receiver for an interception, the first of his career. Maryland sustained the pressure until Heinicke’s day ended with seven seconds left in the third quarter. Except it didn’t always come from Likely off the edge.
Third and 6 at Old Dominion 29-yard line
Heinicke’s third interception happened because Davis knew what was coming. He remembered it from film. When Heinicke rolls out, his receivers roll with him. They drift in their quarterback’s direction. No vertical threat remained on Davis’s side, so he came across the field and read Heinicke’s pass.
Here’s the pre-snap look. The slot defensive back could have blitzed, but dropped into coverage instead. The Terps came with a four-man rush. Nothing fancy.
But the pass-rushers barricaded off Heinicke’s left side, forming a wall that sheep-herded him to the right.
Flushed, Heinicke forced a pass into triple coverage. Davis came from behind, timed his jump and took off. Were it not for Likely’s illegal block below the waist, Davis would have scored too.
“We’ve definitely been practicing attacking the ball, running to the ball,” Davis said. “We see their route concepts versus different coverages, know when to break or not. Like my pick, I was able to play deep, make sure no one was getting behind me. But I knew what play they were running. It comes with practice, fast-tempo pursuit to the ball, knowing their schemes versus our different coverages.”
Third and goal from Maryland 2-yard line
The score was 17-3. The second quarter had just begun. A touchdown would put Old Dominion back within one possession. Heinicke overshot his receiver on second and goal, and dropped back on third down too. The Terps crowded the box with five.
“That’s Stew’s philosophy,” Goins would say later. “Have six, seven, eight people in the box, then they have to guess who’s going to come. Today we were in dime. We had a play called Bronco, one called Dynamite, one called Demon. Just keep them guessing, so he won’t get comfortable. Keep them on his heels. I thought that worked today.
“If he doesn’t know who’s coming, he’s not going to be comfortable. Especially if we’re coming at him, he has at 1-2-3, 1-2-3, then he has to get rid of the ball. I felt that worked today.”
Goins was right. Off the snap, Heinicke’s blocks held fine. Receivers were well-covered, however, so the quarterback needed more time.
Then Whitfield, who earned the defensive game ball against Florida International and probably could have won it again after the ODU game, burned past his blocker and curled around at Heinicke. Heinicke’s outside receiver slanted inside. He was the intended target.
But Whitfield tipped the pass. It went straight into the air. Freshman Yannick Ngakoue, who had hedged blitz but instead dropped into coverage, caught it like a punt. A potential touchdown had been saved.
“I think anytime there’s interceptions, there’s a couple things that come to mind,” Coach Randy Edsall said during his weekly teleconference. “One, it’s pressure by the front seven, whether you’re four-, five- or six-man rush. The quarterback has to throw the ball a little too soon. Or you just have great individual plays by guys out there.
“The one yesterday, Isaac, they tried to go deep, he was back in position to get it. Sean did a great job reading what was happening, and he cut in front of the guy there. Then Yannick, Marcus did a great job to tip the ball.”
Heinicke is no slouch. He had thrown three interceptions just twice in his career and failed to top 200 yards just once entering Saturday. His 730 yards against New Hampshire set a new Division I record. Edsall heaped praise on the junior afterwards, calling him a “heck of a football player.”
The secondary might not keep up this turnover-forcing pace moving forward, but coaxing three interceptions from Heinicke is no small feat. The good news for the Terps is that they’ve succeeded under several different circumstances, demonstrating the versatility Stewart demands and creating the turnovers that were sorely missed last season.
“There’s a lot that goes into it,” Edsall said. “Sometimes you don’t get as many as you’d like, and some years you get more than you thought you could get. If everyone’s doing their job and helping each other, then you get those interceptions.”
>> Unrelated to the defense, but Albert Reid’s cut on his 27-yard touchdown run shook one defender and froze another so deep into the turf his only option was to grasp sideways. If Ross runs like he did against the Monarchs, Reid’s opportunities will come sparingly. Dashes such as these, however, ensure Maryland will keep turning to Reid.