EAST HARTFORD, Conn. – The pressure. It always starts with the pressure. Any success the Maryland football team’s defense enjoys, it stems from those tasked with pursuing the opposing quarterback, barreling from the outside or powering through the gaps. The defensive linemen do it every snap. The edge linebackers, too. When coordinator Brian Stewart dials things back into coverage, that’s the real surprise.
In last season’s three-point loss to Connecticut at home, Terps quarterback Perry Hills was sacked six times, unable to generate any semblance of rhythm while lying prone on his back. In Saturday night’s 32-21 Maryland win, the defense flipped the script. As Terrapins quarterback C.J. Brown remained relatively protected, sacked zero times, his defense hounded Connecticut Chandler Whitmer and dropped him five times.
“We just go out there and do our job,” said linebacker Marcus Whitfield, who accounted for two of those sacks. “Our job is to get the ball into the offense’s job as quick as possible, be on the field less than normal, or less than what everyone wants us to be out there for. Getting those quick three-and-outs definitely. I wouldn’t say the offense struggled, every team has their ups and downs, but we definitely pulled together as a whole team and got the win.”
Thirty-two points and 501 yards of total offense, on paper, doesn’t seem like a rough night for Maryland’s offense. But three turnovers and several dropped passes shifted the burden onto the defense. After coasting in the season opener against Florida International and crushing Old Dominion beneath its dime package in week two, the Terps returned to their core principles: apply pressure until they burst.
To wit, three straight Connecticut first-half drives ended with sacks on third down. First Whitfield dropped Whitmer for 10 yards. Then the senior, arguably Maryland’s defensive MVP through three games, funneled Whitmer toward fellow outside linebacker Yannick Cudjoe-Virgil for a 13-yard loss. Finally, Whitfield’s sack on third and goal from Maryland’s 8-yard line snuffed out a red-zone touchdown opportunity, as the Huskies settled for a 33-yard field goal.
“It all starts with them,” cornerback Will Likely said. “They make our job more easy. You just have to stay on our guy and attack the ball.”
Maryland’s secondary, particularly cornerback Dexter McDougle, benefited from that pressure up front. His 49-yard interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter came when defensive lineman Darius Kilgo bulldozed Whitmer into the ground, allowing McDougle to jump the underthrown ball and weave his way into the end zone.
“It’s all the excitement,” Whitfield said. “When you see somebody pick up the ball, Dex taking back a touchdown, you’re taking another step. Shows you the defense is going to work. It’s exciting to see all the other players around you do well.”
“We love to do that type of stuff,” linebacker Cole Farrand said.
Perhaps most importantly, Maryland’s three turnovers yielded just three Connecticut points. Brown’s first interception of the season turned into a three-and-out. Running back Albert Reid’s bungling of a pitch became a punt. Only when Ross’s fumble deep in Terps territory gave Connecticut the ball did the Huskies finally convert a 34-yard field goal.
“We were moving the ball, we weren’t doing anything too stupid, just fumbles after fumbles when we’re about to punch it in,” Brown said. “The defense played really well today. They stepped up.”
As Maryland’s offensive struggles became more apparent and critical last season, the defense shouldered the load, often worn down by returning to the field with little time for breathers. But with a unit that’s clocked 500 yards in three straight games and has opened the season with three double-digit victories for the first time in 18 years, the burden will lessen.
Yet there may come times, like Saturday, when the offense struggles and the defense becomes the hero. Right?
“I doubt it,” Likely said. “But if they do, we’re ready for it. I believe in the offense. I’m real confident in those guys. They’re going to make plays.”
So, he doubts any team can stop Maryland’s offense?
“Yeah,” he said. “I doubt it.”