Terrapins' Defense Must Regroup Fast With Middle Tennessee on Tap

The Washington Post's Eric Prisbell previews Maryland's matchup with Middle Tennessee State on Saturday, a team that defeated the Terrapins last season. Video by Atkinson & Co.
By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 2009

Maryland defensive lineman Jared Harrell sat at a table this week and talked about three-and-outs and overtime stops, grasping for any signs of defensive improvement to come out of Saturday's 38-35 overtime victory over James Madison.

Despite an underwhelming start to the season -- Maryland ranks 108th in the country in total defense after two games, having surrendered an average of 479.5 yards per game -- the Terrapins' defensive players are making their best effort to remain optimistic, even as they brace for another formidable challenge. One week after struggling mightily against the run-oriented spread offense of the division I-AA Dukes, Maryland will face a similar spread attack with a different emphasis -- passing -- when it hosts Middle Tennessee on Saturday.

"How the window dressing looks may be a little different, but it's the same stuff," Harrell said. "The only real difference is personnel."

Middle Tennessee uses four- and five-receiver sets to spread the field. That is a particular concern for a Maryland team without two starters in the secondary, safety Jamari McCollough (foot) and cornerback Nolan Carroll (broken leg).

Against the Blue Raiders, Maryland will encounter a dual-threat quarterback in junior Dwight Dasher, who accounts for 80 percent of Middle Tennessee's total yards and is coming off back-to-back 200-yard passing games for the first time in his career.

"Their quarterback is a guy to be reckoned with," Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen said. "He is an excellent athlete, a very good runner and an excellent passer."

Harrell acknowledged Dasher's speed but said that facing a mobile quarterback is nothing new and that they'll see others when they meet Florida State (Christian Ponder), Virginia Tech (Tyrod Taylor) and North Carolina State (Russell Wilson). Cornerback Anthony Wiseman said the key for Maryland is to "hit him hard, hit him fast."

After two games, Dasher leads the Sun Belt Conference and ranks 20th nationally in total offense (292.5 yards per game). His 150 rushing yards leads the team, but he has had trouble with his decision-making, throwing three interceptions in a season-opening 37-14 loss at Clemson.

There may be more of an onus on Dasher to produce Saturday because the Blue Raiders (1-1) will be without their best running back, Phillip Tanner, who injured his knee in a 31-14 victory over Memphis last weekend. But Dasher would be the team's top rushing option even if Tanner were available, and first-year offensive coordinator Tony Franklin likes to use a multitude of receivers in a fast-paced, no-huddle attack.

"Dwight does not have to do any more because Phillip is out," Middle Tennessee Coach Rick Stockstill said. "He just has to drive the bus and manage us where we need to go."

For Maryland, the Blue Raiders are a particular concern not only because they beat Maryland last season, but also because the Terrapins have yet to slow opposing offenses this season. While Friedgen spent much of preseason camp praising first-year coordinator Don Brown's attack-minded defense, Tuesday offered the first batch of criticism directed at the unit.

Friedgen said several players, especially in the secondary, have missed tackles, choosing to try to knock down players with blocks rather than wrap them up. On a 70-yard touchdown run by James Madison quarterback Drew Dudzik in the fourth quarter on Saturday, two players missed tackles.

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