Terps defense held strong in red zone during Virginia victory

October 13, 2013

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

“They’re gassed,” someone in the press box muttered, because at this moment the Maryland football team was sucking wind, thrashed on another sizable gain by Virginia’s offense. The Cavaliers had generated more than 400 total yards by that stage, midway through the fourth quarter.

Allowing 500 yards to a Virginia offense that, just two weeks ago, failed to gain 200 at Pittsburgh will concern some Terrapins fans, especially with Heisman Trophy contender Tajh Boyd and No. 3 Clemson lurking on Oct. 26. But with a linebacking corps gashed by injury, Maryland reverted to its bend-don’t-break principles that so often defined defensive coordinator Brian Stewart’s unit last season. In the most crucial of moments, the Terps held strong.

The true drama unfolded over Virginia’s final drive, when the Cavs marched nearly unimpeded deep into Maryland territory, only to watch place kicker Alec Vozenilek yank the potential game-winning field goal attempt wide right from 42 yards. But that the Cavs were here in the first place, driving with little time left to overcome a one-point deficit, testified plenty to their opponent’s ability to hold firm in the red zone, when it mattered most.

“The thing you want to be able to do is be a good red-zone defense, you don’t want to give them touchdowns,” Coach Randy Edsall said. “You want to give them field goals. … It’s a mentality. We’re not there yet with that mentality, but as long as the ball hasn’t crossed the goal line, you’ve got a chance. That’s the mentality we’re trying to instill in our guys. As long as the ball’s there, keep playing. Keep them out of the end zone. That was probably the difference in the game, holding them to field goals when we did.”

Maryland bailed out cornerback Will Likely’s muffed first-quarter punt by holding Virginia to just two yards in the red zone and forcing a 28-yard field goal from Vozenilek, one of four the converted punter made in Saturday’s stiff rain. Keith Bowers, Darius Kilgo and Anthony Nixon all played key roles in stuffing Cavaliers runs, and David Watford’s third-down pass missed wide of its intended target.

Virginia’s next drive began at its 20-yard line and promptly moved into Terps territory, buoyed by gains of nine, 16, 38 and 14 yards, including two long completions to tight end Jake McGee, who quickly became Maryland’s kryptonite. Its pass rush, missing outside linebacker Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil, who left early with an apparent shoulder injury, failed to consistently pressure Watford into quick decisions. Instead, he could sit in the pocket and wait for McGee to uncover holes in the second level, for what ultimately amounted to four third-down conversions.

“The quarterback was doing a great job of getting the ball out quick, because he’s aware we can get pressure in the backfield,” Kilgo, a defensive lineman, said. “He did a great job of getting it out quick and hitting small passes that hurt us.”

So after another tight end – Zach Swanson – picked up 14 yards to move Virginia inside the Maryland 10-yard line, the defense stood strong again. Kevin Parks twice rushed for no gain from one yard out, stuffed by a barrage of oncoming defenders.

“That was our main focus as a defense, to hold them to field goals and not let them get into the end zone,” Kilgo said. “It definitely paid off in the end.”

It might not have if Maryland had not done it twice more. Instead of entering halftime with a six-point lead, Virginia again failed to score a touchdown, this time from the Maryland 11-yard line. Watford misfired twice to McGee, so Vozenilek struck a 27-yarder.

In the fourth quarter, after a bizarre punt sequence when the referees ruled the football grazed Maryland running back Joe Riddle’s jersey and gave possession to Virginia, the Cavs again had a first down inside the Terps red zone. Watford hooked up with Parks for a six-yard completion, then Parks rushed for three yards to the Maryland 8-yard line. But on 3rd and one, linebacker Cole Farrand popped Parks for no gain, and on came the field-goal unit once more.

“You know I always have faith in the defense,” quarterback Caleb Rowe said. “They’re a great defense. But I was starting to get a little nervous at the end.”

Granted, the Terps twice allowed red-zone touchdowns and never forced a turnover, something it had done in bulk before ACC play began. Bigger challenges lie ahead, Boyd and all-American wide receiver Sammy Watkins chief among them. Matt Robinson (rotator cuff) is out for three to four weeks, Cudjoe-Virgil never returned and Alex Twine was hampered by a wrist issue. A thinned linebacking corps only heightens the pressure.

But Maryland needed a win, independent of style, and four field goals certainly hurt less than four touchdowns.

“We just came in and we did what we were coached to do,” said linebacker L.A. Goree, the team leader with 15 tackles, more a testament to Virginia’s ability to reach the second level than anything else. “We didn’t do anything special. We had a tough week of practice. The coaches were in us, trying to maintain our winning attitude coming off a tough loss. We were able to come in and make some tough stops with our team. Field goals are super important, because they would have been the winners right now.

“Except the Terps were.”

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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Alex Prewitt | October 13, 2013