The defensive staff armored up for a war of the minds. They were giddy over facing Old Dominion’s spread attack, in which pre-snap reads by quarterback Taylor Heinicke open the door for deception. They preached an unfamiliar scheme – the dime defense – and shuffled roles. And with a crucial member relegated to crutches and a walking boot, they dominated anyway.
When Old Dominion began its first series Saturday afternoon, the Maryland defense aligned in a way the Monarchs hadn’t much watched on tape. Two defensive linemen, including mercenary Roman Braglio, a nose tackle for this very scenario. Three linebackers, all outside, all adept at disruption. Six defensive backs – three corners and three safeties – clogging the secondary with speed. This was the dime package the Terrapins hoped could halt Heinicke. “We knew we had to try to pressure him, change some looks and try to confuse him,” Coach Randy Edsall said.
They did. The reigning Walter Payton Trophy winner was held below 200 yards passing for just the second time in his career. His three interceptions – all in the first half – tied a career high. His day ended with seven ticks left in the third quarter and, for the first time ever, Heinicke had failed to lead the Monarchs to double-digit points.
“I believe you can only come back from this, and this is a setback and we’re trying to get back from this,” Heinicke said afterward. “And I feel like that’s the best defense I’ve faced in college. Their DBs were the best I’ve seen and I think our offensive line did a great job protecting me. They were just coverage sacks. They were just very good in the secondary.”
Through two games Maryland has intercepted four passes, matching last season’s total. Disguised pressure forced Heinicke into quick decisions, which resulted in the unusually high turnover rate. The Terps were without starting cornerback Jeremiah Johnson, who suffered an apparent ankle injury last weekend in the season opener, but any worries about his absence were snuffed on the first possession.
The Monarchs’ offense had moved slowly, facing third and 12 from its 25-yard line. A.J. Hendy, normally a backup safety but on Saturday another starter, blew up a screen pass on first down. Heinicke scrambled on second down, but linebacker Marcus Whitfield cracked him at the line of scrimmage. So Heinicke, who once threw for a Division I-record 730 yards in a game, decided to take a shot downfield.
Jakwail Bailey had his defender beat down the right sideline. Isaac Goins started in Johnson’s stead, and an accurate throw would have opened Old Dominion’s afternoon with a bang. But Heinicke underthrew Bailey. Goins snared his first career interception.
“It was an experimental thing,” Goins said. “It’s not every game where you get to stay in dime. I thought this game was going to prepare us for the spread teams we play in the future, like West Virginia and Clemson. I thought we did well overall as a unit.
“I think we kept them guessing. 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.”
Flushed from the pocket later that quarter, Heinicke tried, in his words, to “be Superman.” He should have dumped the ball out of bounds and left Old Dominion to punt. But he forced the pass right into the hands of safety Sean Davis. The sophomore took off with room to run, and hard blocks gave him a clear path to the end zone. But flags flew when freshman Will Likely (team-high 11 tackles, nine solo) chop-blocked an offensive lineman. The touchdown was called back.
“I said if he was going to return his punt return, I was going to clip somebody up,” Davis said, laughing. “Nah, it happens. I wasn’t too mad at him. I still got my interception, it’s all good.”
The worry may come Sunday, when Coach Randy Edsall is expected to address Johnson’s situation on his weekly teleconference. Goins lamented Johnson’s absence. “It hasn’t been the same,” he said. But both Goins and Davis hinted at something serious, maybe something more than a one-week issue.
“JJ’s been positive about the whole thing,” Goins said. “He’s been a vocal leader off the field, in the film room, we definitely miss his presence though.”
Said Davis: “We weren’t so worried. Isaac’s a great player, great athlete. Him being on my side, we’ve been practicing and getting our communication down together. I wasn’t too worried. I don’t know about anyone else. But I felt comfortable playing with Isaac. I look forward to playing with him next week.”