By Marc Carig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 21, 2006
As the regular season unfolded and the Maryland football team's defense suffered, stiffened and suffered again, first-year defensive coordinator Chris Cosh took a daily flogging from frustrated fans on Internet message boards and other forums.
"Everybody's got an opinion," said Cosh, who said he wasn't aware of the criticism.
Maryland ranked last in the ACC in run defense, allowing 174.6 yards per game. The Terrapins placed next to last in sacks per game and 10th in the 12-team league in total defense, scoring defense and tackles for a loss. At least once, Coach Ralph Friedgen felt compelled to offer an unsolicited vote of confidence for his defensive staff.
But the Terrapins say they enter the Champs Sports Bowl against Purdue in Orlando on Dec. 29 as a united group, despite the shakiness and a rough adjustment period for Cosh and his players.
"He hung in there with us, and we hung in there with him," said Erin Henderson, Maryland's leading tackler. "We just bonded together, pulled together as a team."
Cosh, in his second stint at Maryland, said the defense has at times played above and at times played beneath his expectations.
"Is it where we want to be? No. Is it where we were? No," Cosh said. "So we're in the between. Have we made progress? Yeah. But not to the extent that we want yet."
During the five-game winning streak that vaulted the Terrapins into their first postseason appearance since 2004, the defense played a major role. Henderson's interception helped Maryland take a season-changing victory at Virginia, and the defense didn't allow a touchdown against Clemson's high-octane offense during a 13-12 upset victory, the Terrapins' most impressive road win.
Yet Maryland finished the regular season allowing 38 points each in defeats to Boston College and Wake Forest. Both performances were reminiscent of the Terrapins' blowout loss to West Virginia on Sept. 14, perhaps the season's low point, when the defense looked lost and confused against the Mountaineers' running attack.
Players say a turning point in the season came when Henderson and Cosh started to heal what had been a tension-filled relationship after the Terrapins' Sept. 23 victory over Florida International.
"That helped us a lot, for them to come along," middle linebacker Wesley Jefferson said. "Just that team unity and bonding, if everybody doesn't get it, then it's not good."
Henderson said the dispute was over mistaken perception, prompting the two to meet about their problems.
"I'm a very emotional player and I'm a very emotional person," Henderson said. "And sometimes it shows on my face, and he was taking it the wrong way. He was taking it as me not taking to his coaching or me not listening to him or me not wanting to hear what he wanted to say, and it really wasn't that."
After the air-clearing session, Henderson emerged as a force at linebacker, on the way to a 110-tackle campaign that led to second-team all-ACC honors.
"I think once my attitude changed, a lot of other people had their attitude change and things like that," Henderson said. "We were able to just come together as a team, coaching staff and players. And I think that makes a difference when we're all on the same page."
Part of the process was players getting used to Cosh's style.
Safety Christian Varner said Cosh's high-energy demeanor, though surprising at first, played well to a roster in which five of 11 starters played major roles for the first time in their careers. Varner hopes this translates into a victory over Purdue.
"After somebody would make a play, he would run all the way across the field, come right to you and start slapping your helmet," said Varner, recalling one afternoon at spring practice. "And you're like, 'What is he doing?' After a while, you get used to it and you start jumping around, too."
Cosh called the matchup with the Boilermakers unique because the Terrapins haven't faced a comparable opponent. The matchup on paper looks dangerous -- the Boilermakers led the Big Ten in passing offense (293.7 yards per game) and total offense (425.8) -- but Cosh said he's confident that his team can summon a performance similar to what he saw during the upset at Clemson.
"I'm excited about what we can get accomplished here," Cosh said. "I think we're really scratching the surface of what we can become."