Give us a lead, said the Maryland defense. Once the Terps' offense achieves a single success, linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said this summer, the defense would take responsibility for securing a win. Fellow linebacker David Holloway agreed. "If we're up at all during the game -- 3-0, 7-0 -- that's on us," Holloway said.
So when the Terps scored their 24th point last Saturday to take a 10-point lead over Clemson, the game was supposed to be over. That tally would have been enough to win 10 of Maryland's 11 games a year ago, and it was more than the defense ever asked for.
"That's probably what ate me up most inside," cornerback Josh Wilson said, several days after his defense yielded two late touchdowns in that 28-24 loss. "As a defense, we pride ourselves on stopping teams and keeping the offense in games. And lately, they've been keeping us in a lot of games."
Two games may not make a pattern, but Maryland's loss to Clemson bore a certain similarity to its win over Navy the previous week. In each game, a defense known for its stinginess yielded a long touchdown drive on the opponent's first possession. And in both games, after being handed a fourth-quarter lead, the defense gave up at least one more touchdown drive, forcing quarterback Sam Hollenbach into the role of late-game savior.
As the Terps (1-1) prepared for today's meeting with West Virginia -- which has averaged 15.8 points in four meetings with Maryland defensive coordinator Gary Blackney -- they tried to settle on an explanation for those late-game breakdowns.
Players said shoddy conditioning was not responsible, but just in case, the past week of practice featured an extra dose of wind sprints. Coaches said a lack of physical domination at the line of scrimmage has been a major problem, and so the past week also featured several days of heavy hitting, a fair share of hoarse coaches bellowing about concentration and desire, and a team-meeting speech from Jackson about toughening up. A few players on offense and defense said they sensed a lackadaisical mood during the fourth quarter against Clemson -- a feeling that the game was in hand -- and so there have been further speeches about ignoring the scoreboard.
"When you're playing a good team, you need to play all 60 minutes," left tackle Derek Miller said. "Not 45, not 50, not 53; you need to play all 60 minutes to get a win."
Not much can be done, though, about the defense's most commonly cited problem: inexperience on the line and in the secondary. Four freshmen or sophomores have received significant playing time in the secondary; six more on the defensive line.
"They are pretty much what they are, we're not going to get them better in one night," Coach Ralph Friedgen said, referring specifically to the line. "There's certain things I just can't accelerate, even though I'd like to think I can. And so I'm trying to be more patient than what I've been in the past."
Coaches thus explained to these younger players the gravity of their late-game mistakes. On a third and 10, sophomore safety Christian Varner (one career start) rushed toward the line of scrimmage to cover what appeared to be a "jailbreak" screen, a play the Tigers had already run several times. His assigned man, flanker Curtis Baham, faked a block and then flew past Varner, catching a 51-yard touchdown pass. On a third and 10, coaches said, Varner should have been far more cautious.
"If they ran that again I'd be all over it, but I can't take it back," Varner said. "I've just got to learn from my mistakes and move on."
Later in the fourth quarter, on a third and seven, sophomore defensive back Isaiah Gardner (zero career starts) lost outside containment, allowing running back Reggie Merriweather to head down the sideline for a 38-yard go-ahead score. Gardner's primary responsibility in that situation is to funnel running plays back inside, precisely to avoid such a game-changing play.
"They haven't had the time here to learn the situations," Wilson said. "Just watching film, learning your surroundings, learning the defense, knowing the down and distance. Just little things that you may not think are a big deal but turn out to be a big deal."
Despite those mistakes -- and a rash of personal fouls committed by defensive veterans last weekend -- there have been positive signs from the defense. After yielding touchdowns on Navy's first two drives, the Terps clamped down, stopping the Midshipmen on six consecutive third downs. Much the same happened against Clemson; in the middle quarters, the Tigers had 72 yards of offense and were 1 for 6 on third downs.
For now, the fourth-quarter breakdowns that occurred will be written off as correctable errors, although that excuse has an expiration date fast approaching.
"The season started, you've got two games under your belt, you're no longer rookies any more," Wilson said. "We don't have any more time to still be learning."