Maryland's Reworked Defense Is "Angry and Ready to Dominate"

"As soon as [North Carolina] comes out, we are going to hit them in the mouth," Maryland's Dion Armstrong said. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
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By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 15, 2008

All week, Dion Armstrong sat in geography class and heard the same thing from classmates: How did you guys get run over like that? Did you just not feel like playing? Rather than be rude, Armstrong simply said he had no answer for how a Virginia Tech redshirt freshman could rush for a school-record 253 yards against Maryland.

But in the nine days since the loss at Virginia Tech, the ridicule has fueled a controlled rage inside Armstrong, an emotion the redshirt freshman is ready to unleash today when he makes his first career start against No. 17 North Carolina.

"Angry and ready to dominate," Armstrong said of his attitude. "People are assuming from that game that we can't play the run. As soon as [North Carolina] comes out, we are going to hit them in the mouth. We're sick of hearing about it."

Armstrong, a nose tackle, will take the field as one-third of a reshuffled defensive line that will figure heavily in Maryland's attempt to beat North Carolina and remain in the ACC's Atlantic Division race. Because of recent struggles and injury concerns, coaches decided on a new-look line with more size to defend the Tar Heels' improved ground game.

Senior Jeremy Navarre will move from tackle to supplant Mack Frost at end, where Navarre played his first three seasons. Junior Travis Ivey will take Navarre's place at tackle, and Armstrong will replace undersize Bemi Otulaja at nose tackle, although Otulaja still will be involved in the rotation.

Otulaja clearly has struggled at times because of size. While Navarre is fifth on the team with 48 total tackles, Otulaja (13 tackles) is 18th. Armstrong (19 tackles) is 14th, and Ivey, despite playing in only five games, is 19th with 12 tackles. Navarre is 33 pounds heavier than Frost, who has yet to completely recover from last season's knee surgery. Ivey, who missed the first four games because of a broken foot, is 6 feet 4, 325 pounds. And Armstrong is almost 20 pounds heavier than Otulaja.

"Bemi plays very hard, but sometimes he gets mismatches in there," Terrapins Coach Ralph Friedgen said. "You have a lot of big bodies, and sometimes he just gets thrown around. It is not a question of effort. Sometimes he gets overpowered. If Ivey can play with the same intensity that Bemi plays with, we will be fine."

Friedgen said the starting personnel is best suited to defend North Carolina, which effectively runs straight ahead with running backs Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston.

Draughn is averaging 98.4 rushing yards in his last five games, while the 245-pound Houston has been successful in short-yardage situations, particularly near the goal line. Houston, who had a career-high 74 rushing yards last week against Georgia Tech, has scored seven touchdowns, his longest touchdown run being three yards.

It remains to be seen whether the line can correct the miscues that plagued the defense in Blacksburg, Va., on Nov. 6. Missed tackles and missed assignments helped Virginia Tech amass 273 rushing yards, including 253 by redshirt freshman Darren Evans.

"They weren't doing anything special," Armstrong said. "But we were messing up so bad. We could have easily beaten them. Out of the teams we played this year, I don't even know if they are in the top three. We could have played 10 times better, and we have, but we made them look better than they really were."

Evans had five running plays (50, 45, 29, 20 and 17 yards) that accounted for 161 yards. Take those away, Friedgen told players, and the defense played okay.

"It got to a point in the second half when we were stopping them and then letting them burst one big one that would give them momentum, that was the most frustrating thing," Armstrong said. "That threw us off our mind-set."

Already this season, Maryland has made critical defensive adjustments to stop the run. Against Clemson on Sept. 27, the Terrapins couldn't stop the Tigers on the ground in the first half, only to hold Clemson to 26 rushing yards in the second half. The change, moving to a more basic formation, enabled Maryland to rally for a 20-17 victory.

Armstrong believes today's game is about motivation as much as adjustments. He will be looking to flush away memories of Blacksburg. For Ivey, who also is starting the first game of his career, the fuel comes from the future, not the past.

"I'm not going to say I am necessarily angry at Virginia Tech," Ivey said. "Virginia Tech is over with. I look at North Carolina as being in our way of an ACC championship. That's the only motivation I need."

Terrapins Note: Cornerback Nolan Carroll is questionable because of an ankle injury. Friedgen said Carroll remains "gimpy," and if Carroll is unable to play it would be a significant blow to a depleted secondary already without seniors Kevin Barnes and Richard Taylor, both of whom are out for the season.

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