The anger has mounted each week for Maryland’s defense, as the Terrapins’ football season has devolved from hopeful promise to dark comedy. First there were close losses to North Carolina State and Boston College, in which the Terps surrendered the winning points in the final minute. Then came last week’s breakdown against Georgia Tech, when the Terps allowed 33 points and 370 rushing yards, both season highs.
But after reviewing film of that debacle, and with arguably its biggest test of the season on deck in Saturday’s game at No. 10 Clemson, the Maryland defense did what it does best: It flushed the disappointment and walked away.
“We had our worst game, obviously of the season; defense letting them score the most points,” cornerback Jeremiah Johnson said. “It was last week, and you have to put it behind you. That’s the mentality. Not just of the defense but of everybody. It’s something they preach, but we’re going into game 10. It’s something we’ve made a good habit about, getting rid of last week.”
The one sting that will linger from the Yellow Jackets’ 33-13 romp is the loss of leading tackler and emotional general Demetrius Hartsfield, who suffered a torn ACL and will miss the season’s final three games.
Maryland’s litany of injuries this season has gone from the remarkable to the absurd in recent weeks, but losing Hartsfield strikes a particular blow. The linebacker anchored the 3-4 scheme that has Maryland second in the ACC in total defense, providing stability in the middle that established effective edge blitzes and coverage disguises.
Now the Terps soldier on to Clemson, where junior quarterback Tajh Boyd has made a mockery out of ACC defenses over the past two weeks, tying program records with five touchdowns each against Wake Forest and Duke. He ranks eighth nationally in total offense, 16th in passing yards per game and fourth in passing efficiency. Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins is sixth nationally in receiving yards per game, while the speedy Sammy Watkins is a constant home run threat.
“For us, it doesn’t really change. We just have to do what we do,” said senior Joe Vellano, who has quietly put together another all-American-caliber season with an ACC-high 14 tackles for loss. “When you start letting in all the other stuff, it just takes away from your game. You can’t let that take away from the X’s-and-O’s and what you have to do every play. There’s so many things that can go wrong on a single play, so if your mind’s not there it can hurt you and your team.”
With seemingly half the offense sidelined and the others still dealing with growing pains, Coach Randy Edsall didn’t rule out the influence of “human nature,” that the defense has struggled to balance assignments and compensating for a lack of offense.
“A lot of the games, it’s frustrating to watch the film,” Johnson said. “You can see that we’re beating ourselves. We have the talent to do it. It’s more what you’re not doing rather than what the other team’s doing.”
Against Boston College and North Carolina State, the lapses were painful because they happened at crucial times. And Georgia Tech’s triple option presented a unique challenge to the Terps, whose preparation time was curtailed by Hurricane Sandy.
“They were upset. They’ve been upset because they have a high level of expectations for what they wanted to do,” Edsall said. “Yeah, they’ve got something they want to prove. Each and every week, they want to go out and say, ‘Hey, this is who we are. This is what we can do.’ ”
The Terps, who rank 11th nationally in total defense and 18th against the run, have claimed to be unconcerned with statistics all season. They’ll trot out L.A. Goree to replace Hartsfield and, instead of worrying about facing an unfamiliar scheme, will face a more conventional attack with top-level playmakers.
“These schools like Clemson, Florida State, Carolina, they’ve got a lot of good athletes and talent on their team,” defensive lineman A.J. Francis said. “So they automatically assume you don’t. They assume you’re just going to lay down for them and not fight.
“I’m sure their coaches are telling them not look into the fact that we have a linebacker playing quarterback or gave up 300 yards on the ground last week, but if the roles were reversed, I’d be licking my chops at this team. They’re going to be looking at us like dinner on the table.”
Perfectly fine for a Maryland defense that has no plans to go down easy.