The Maryland football team’s defense realized the task at hand against North Carolina State, because after losing to Boston College the coaching staff had harped on it all week. “We knew we had to put them away,” linebacker Matt Robinson said. “We had to keep stopping them, keep stopping them.”
The offense had held its end of the bargain during the first half, spotting the defense a 41-14 lead. But with the home crowd growing louder by the minute, momentum bending towards the opposite sideline and murmurs of 2011 spread through the sidelines, the Terrapins needed a string of fourth-down stands – three straight, in fact – to help stave off another epic collapse.
Two years ago, many of these players allowed the Wolfpack to come back from a deficit of that exact same score to win, and here they were poised to do it again. They had already scored once in the second half, on their first drive three minutes into the second quarter capped off by a three-yard run from quarterback Brandon Mitchell. After Maryland coaxed a punt — N.C. State’s fifth and final one of Saturday afternoon — and the Terps offense went three-and-out, the Wolfpack began at the 50-yard line and quickly entered opposing territory. Once again, they were knocking at the door.
“The crowd wasn’t into it early, then they were into it down the stretch,” linebacker Matt Robinson said. “It made seem like they were coming back, when really we were driving them and stopping them. Then we stopped them.”
First, N.C. State reached the Maryland 37-yard line, but soon fourth and three arrived. The Wolfpack lined up in an illegal formation, stacking the backfield with five men, and soon after the snap, the line judge hurled his flag. Turns out, it didn’t matter. Mitchell lost five yards on his scramble attempt, dropped in the pocket by safety Anthony Nixon.
But each stop was a little bit bigger than the one that came before. Maryland spoiled a drive into Wolfpack territory when T.Y. McGill stripped running back Brandon Ross and, seconds after its big stand, the defense was rushing back onto the field for more.
“It’s not a question of the heart, but when it’s time to really bow up, that’s when the heart gets even bigger,” defensive lineman Andre Monroe said. “That’s when you say okay, we need to put our foot down even more, we’re not doing something right so we have to do it harder, we have to execute better. That’s what helps us get those when we really need to capitalize on those fourth downs.”
That drive began with four straight plays of at least five yards and the Terps found themselves backed into the red zone, one fourth-down conversion already going the Wolfpack’s way. It third down, with three yards to go from the 8-yard line when linebacker L.A. Goree dropped Mitchell for a loss, and once again N.C. State couldn’t afford to kick. So it dialed up another quarterback run to Mitchell. Marcus Whitfield and Quinton Jefferson quickly hunted him down for another tackle for a loss, one of the defense’s 12.5 for the game.
“It’s senior day for them – desperation,” quarterback C.J. Brown said of N.C. State. “They weren’t going to a bowl so they were going to go for it [on those fourth-down plays]. They have nothing to hold back. So for our defense to go out there and shut it down like that, it was huge.”
The Wolfpack had one more drive left in them, and this time reached the Maryland 8-yard line. Safety Sean Davis defended a third-down pass, so the Terps clocked a timeout to discuss matters before fourth down. This time, N.C. State learned its lesson about quarterback keepers, so Mitchell dropped back to pass.
At this point, defensive coordinator Brian Stewart called exactly what he’s called for all season: pressure. Linebacker Shawn Petty, who watched from the Byrd Stadium sidelines as a scout-teamer when Maryland lost to N.C. State on a last-second missed field goal last season, burst through the line almost untouched and dragged Mitchell back 15 yards. The game was effectively over.
“It’s guys giving great effort, it’s guys using good technique to get there and that was big for us,” Coach Randy Edsall said. “And because there were a couple times they were maybe in field-goal range and we got some sacks and knocked them out of field-goal range. I thought our defensive line played well. … That’s a pretty good day’s work for those guys.”
Robinson finished with 17 tackles, 3.5 of which went for a loss. He, Whitfield and Ngakoue each had at least a half-sack, but it was Monroe who, once again, starred on the road. Two weeks after dropping Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas for three sacks, a career-high, the junior one former teammate affectionately calls “Chunky Butt” pummeled Mitchell for two more.
“My instincts was flowing, executing the scheme, executing the plays that were being called,” Monroe said. “I felt that groove, that rhythm. I’m sure every player knows what that is. When you got it, you just listen to it and just…”
Here his voice quieted. At this moment, he seemed to be speaking more about the Maryland defense at-large, rather than his individual performance.
“…go, go, go.”