Perplexed, or Perplexing?
Terps' Defense Likes Its New Look, but Debut Wasn't Pretty
Saturday, September 12, 2009
Throughout preseason camp, Maryland's defensive players listened as observers predicted that their new-look, attacking scheme would confound offenses and compensate for the team's overall inexperience.
But entering Saturday's home opener against James Madison, Terrapins fans are still waiting to see a defense that looks more perplexed than perplexing. California exposed Maryland's defensive weak points in a season-opening 52-13 rout, amassing 542 total yards, throwing four touchdown passes and clearing the way for a scintillating 73-yard touchdown run by star running back Jahvid Best.
"I think everyone thought this was some magical defense, that whatever play called was going to work because it worked in the spring and camp," Maryland linebacker Alex Wujciak said. "But we have to come out and execute it better and sharper, quicker and faster."
Maryland's players and coaches are expecting significant growth in the season's second game. A defense that replaced seven starters from 2008 has had one game to adjust to a complex scheme, and while James Madison's spread offense is a concern for Maryland, the division I-AA Dukes do not figure to possess the same offensive firepower as a California team thought to be a contender for the division I-A national title.
Regardless, Don Brown, Maryland's first-year coordinator who implemented the defense, said making the conversion to an unconventional defense with largely inexperienced players was an issue against California, which gained 300 yards on eight plays alone. But he is making no excuses for the poor first impression.
"I am completely responsible for it," Brown said. "I am accountable for it. The bottom line is that I believe in our guys, we are going to stay the course, and we are going to get it right."
Senior defensive tackle Travis Ivey said one reason the defense performed so well in preseason camp was because of its familiarity with the Terrapins' offense. Players better anticipated plays and possessed a greater grasp of teammates' tendencies. At times, Ivey said, he and others were guilty of simply making a play rather than following assignments.
Maryland paid for such freelancing against California. Throughout the game, Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen saw signs of what he had feared entering the game: players resorting to old habits when facing a difficult circumstance or matchup.
"You can train guys to do it right," Friedgen said. "Then all of the sudden, you get into the fight and you go back to what you've been doing all your life. They come off and realize they screwed up. Hopefully we'll be better at it this week. If we don't, then we have not grown."
For example, strong safety Kenny Tate, who had dominated the Maryland offense much of preseason camp, found himself uncharacteristically out of position at times against the Golden Bears. Friedgen said Tate looked at the tape and said, " 'What am I doing?' He knows he can play better."
But if there was one sequence to sum up the steep learning curve, it could be California's first-down play with 10 minutes 6 seconds remaining in the first quarter, a play that has already found its place on YouTube. Best took his second handoff of the game 73 yards for the game's first touchdown.
Ivey said redshirt freshman nose tackle A.J. Francis had been told in practice about the danger of getting cut off near the line of scrimmage, and that if he did it would probably result in a touchdown. But Ivey said that is precisely what happened on that play against the Golden Bears, and Best turned it into another highlight clip for his Heisman Trophy candidacy.
Ivey said Francis felt bad about the miscue, but Ivey told him after the game that Ivey had made the same mistake with his gap assignment when he was a young player. Unfortunately, he said, sometimes it's part of the learning process.
"It took for that to happen for him to get it, but it's the first game, and he will be better for it," Ivey said. "I'm confident he can get the job done. He had one slip-up."
There were others. Some players and coaches attributed it to the speed of the game, saying it was difficult to simulate that in practice for defensive players who had yet to compete in a college game. But Friedgen was concerned that some experienced players -- not first-year starters -- did not blitz when they were supposed to, leaving defensive backs in man-to-man coverage with receivers too long.
As a whole, Brown said his defenders lined up well, although a few issues emerged with leverage and support. He added that some players anticipated certain plays incorrectly, which was easily pointed out on film on Monday. Ivey also felt some players were hesitant about blitzing with abandon.
"When the ball was snapped and they saw something funky, they kind of froze up," Ivey said. "Not knowing the calls was not the issue. We knew what the calls were."
Brown did see some positives. Cornerback Anthony Wiseman broke up four passes in press coverage, and cornerback Nolan Carroll broke up one. Brown liked what he saw out of backup cornerback Cameron Chism, a sophomore who was on the field for 12 plays and made three tackles, and linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield, a redshirt freshman who played well for nearly 40 plays before Brown saw mental fatigue set in.
Against James Madison, Brown may get a look at a few true freshmen, including defensive end Isaiah Ross and linebackers Darin Drakeford and Avery Murray.
Regardless of who plays, James Madison promises to pose a different test than Cal because Maryland is expecting heavy doses of an option attack. Wujciak said James Madison would likely run the ball 80 percent of the time.
"Everyone always says the spread is a great equalizer," defensive linemen Deege Galt said.
Unlike last week, when Maryland was primarily concerned with Best's big-play ability, the Terrapins will face two quarterbacks -- junior Drew Dudzik and redshirt freshman Justin Thorpe -- who can run.
"Their quarterbacks to me are like running backs, big running backs," Friedgen said. "Both are over 200 pounds, maybe closer to 215. Both run very well. They are like linebackers back there. That has you concerned right there."