It had the makings of a long day, right from the start. Never before this season had the Syracuse football team’s offense looked this dominant, maybe not in several years. For nearly eight minutes the Orange gashed Maryland’s defense, straight into the end zone. Quarterback Terrel Hunt completed all six pass attempts. Jerome Smith ran hard through the tackles, for gains of seven, eight, six and seven yards. Not even two false start penalties helped the Terrapins, and soon they fell behind 7-0.
“It was odd, why we weren’t stopping whatever they were doing,” linebacker Abner Logan said.
Things got better from there. A defense that has absorbed its share of lumps during ACC play – 40.8 points and 491.5 total yards per conference game before Saturday – allowed just two field goals and one touchdown in a 20-3 loss at Byrd Stadium. Only one of those scoring drives went longer than 28 yards. On an afternoon when Maryland’s offense committed four turnovers on four straight possessions bridging halftime, the defense was the unfortunately hamstrung recipients of those miscues, despite forcing two turnovers itself.
“It’s kind of a blow,” Logan said. “Then again why not make it three? We still have the capability of making turnovers every game we have. We’re no strangers to that happening. But it is disappointing. We just go back at it again.”
Earlier this week, defensive coordinator Brian Stewart talked about these “sudden change” plays, when his unit is abruptly called back onto the field. Maryland has been markedly better at giving its defense time to rest this season compared to 2012, but averaging three turnovers per ACC game thus far backs the Terps into a corner. Two Syracuse scoring drives lasted just six plays and went for 21 and 28 yards, respectively, but resulted in field goals because the Orange assumed possession at or near the Maryland 40-yard line.
Even more maddening for the defense? Situations like what happened twice Saturday, when defensive lineman Andre Monroe stripped Smith and linebacker Alex Twine recovered, only to sprint back onto the field less than three minutes later when quarterback C.J. Brown threw his first of two interceptions. Then, after cornerback Will Likely dove and snared his first career interception, Maryland needed only seven plays to give the football back.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” defensive lineman Darius Kilgo. “When we have as many turnovers as we did, it’s hard to win a game. As a defense, all we can do is keep playing, keep trying to get even more turnovers to give the offense a chance. That’s all we can do at that point in time.”
Even without leading tackler Cole Farrand, sidelined Saturday with a concussion, Maryland’s stable of backups managed solid games. Logan, who started for L.A. Goree (back spasms) made 10 tackles. Safety Sean Davis had a team-high 11 and broke up a pass. Shawn Petty, starting in Farrand’s stead, had six tackles and one for a loss.
Syracuse’s 57-yard touchdown drive helped nail the coffin, but Maryland’s anemic offense never took advantage of what its defense presented. Four Orange punts after halftime – all three-and-outs that gained a total of five yards – were turned into one field goal, one punt and two turnovers on downs.
And so as the reporters and television cameras emptied from Gossett Field House after dark, Logan sat in the last row of the auditorium and expressed confidence for a defense that had arguably played its best ACC game to date. The loss stung, Logan said, but at least they had something off which to build.
“When everyone’s on the same page, no one’s going to mess with us,” Logan said. “But if there’s a little discrepancy with their assignments, me included, you could see it, especially when you go back and look at things on film.”