Think about Clemson. What comes to mind? Tajh Boyd, perhaps, one of the nation’s top quarterbacks. Or maybe Sammy Watkins, the electric slot receiver who makes defenders miss. But this season, the ninth-ranked Tigers have suddenly been buoyed by a top-notch defense, one that will careen into Byrd Stadium on Saturday seeking vengeance.
Not for anything the Maryland football team did, mind you (the Terrapins have not beaten Clemson since 2009). But the Tigers were undoubtedly soured by last weekend’s 51-14 loss in Death Valley to Florida State, their first loss of the season, and can execute some revenge against a battered Terrapins offense.
“They’re talented on defense,” Maryland offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said Wednesday. “They’re really high in the nation in a lot of areas that we aren’t very good at right now. Third-down defense, lead the nation in sacks, tackles for a loss, they’re up in there in all those different categories. For us, we’ve got to find a way to get going in offense.
“We have opportunities where we move the ball, then the turnover bug has really kicked in for us offensively, which for me is very disappointing. We need to pride ourselves on not beating ourselves.”
Indeed, Maryland’s offense has soured since conference play began. In three ACC games, Locksley’s unit ranks last in scoring offense, eighth in total offense, 13th in rushing offense, 12th in completion percentage, last in third-down conversions, 13th in red-zone efficiency and 11th in first downs. Not exactly glowing statistics for an offense that topped 500 yards in its first three games.
Of course, much of that can be attributed to injuries. The Terps will forge forward without leading receivers Deon Long and Stefon Diggs, both of whom suffered season-ending broken legs against Wake Forest last weekend. Leading rusher Brandon Ross’s status remains uncertain after leaving Saturday’s 34-10 loss to the Demon Deacons with an apparent shoulder injury, and quarterback C.J. Brown has been battling an undisclosed ailment unrelated to the concussion incurred during Maryland’s 63-0 loss at Florida State on Oct. 5.
“We are going to do whatever it takes to win a ball game, so for us it starts with execution,” Locksley said. “People throw around the words ‘ball control,’ for us that means executing, sustaining some drives and that means we have to better on third downs. That means you have to execute well on first and second to get some manageable situations. So we are going to focus on taking care of the football, not turning it over, and not putting our defense in bad field position situations like we did last week.”
Maryland’s offense dug itself a hole from the very first snap against Wake Forest, when nose tackle Nikita Whitlock dropped Brown for a 14-yard loss deep in Maryland territory. Coach Randy Edsall stuck with his starting offensive line for most of the afternoon, an indication that an already thin unit won’t change anytime soon.
Locksley backed the group, which has allowed 17 sacks this season, attributing most of Whitlock’s two sacks and three quarterback hurries to the all-ACC defensive lineman. Besides, none of those statistics came after halftime, when Maryland started double-teaming Whitlock.
“I think our offensive line did what they were supposed to be doing,” Locksley said. “He disrupted the offense the first three series. He disrupted the game plan pretty much on his own. It was all things that were technical, using the correct footwork, getting off on the snap, little things like that that comes along with playing that position. I think once our guys settled down, I think we improved in those areas and took away his ability to disrupt us as much as he did.”
Disruption is an apt characterization. The Terps haven’t been quite the same since that drubbing in Tallahassee, and Clemson presents another formidable challenge without Diggs and Long around to help ease the burden off Brown. If Maryland gets in another hole early, allowing quick sacks and failing to protect whichever quarterback lines up against the country’s leader in sacks, the Terps could once again slip into an offensive free fall.
“We need to find a way to right that ship first, with taking care of the football, not beating ourselves and obviously our execution needs to be better,” Locksley said.