Seven games into the season, Maryland's defense is the worst in the Big Ten, at least from a statistical perspective. The Terrapins are not only giving up 36.7 points per game, which ranks last in the conference by nearly a touchdown, they are also surrendering 439.1 yards per outing, which is nearly 30 more than the second-to-last-rated defense of Illinois.
But the number that encapsulates this unit's struggles more than anything else, according to Maryland Coach DJ Durkin and defensive coordinator Andy Buh, is its inability to get off the field on third down. That also ranks last in the Big Ten; opponents have converted a staggering 49.1 percent of third downs against the Terrapins. Only two Power Five schools, Missouri and Oregon State, are worse in that category.
"It's really been an Achilles' heel for us," Buh said.
Maryland's struggles on third down also underscore the defense's remarkable lack of a pass rush, which has become a troubling trend in three consecutive losses and again will be at the forefront as the Terrapins (3-4, 1-3 Big Ten) host pass-happy Indiana (3-4, 0-4) in College Park on Saturday.
Maryland has just 10 sacks in seven games. Half of those came in the season-opening, 51-41 win over Texas; four more came the following week in a blowout victory over lower-division opponent Towson. The defense has tallied just one sack in the five games since, and the unit has struggled to merely manufacture pressure on crucial downs out of its 4-2-5 base defense.
It was again widely apparent in a 38-13 loss to No. 5 Wisconsin last week, when the Badgers converted 8 of 13 third-down attempts and neutralized Maryland's blitz packages all afternoon.
"The biggest issue has been consistency. I think our ineffectiveness to get to the quarterback and affect the quarterback has been an issue," said Durkin, whose team is giving up 259 passing yards per game, which also ranks last in the Big Ten.
It has been difficult to find consistency without the team's best pass rusher, senior linebacker Jesse Aniebonam, whose season ended when he suffered a fractured ankle in the win over Texas.
That was a devastating blow. Aniebonam recorded nine sacks and 14 tackles for losses and led all Big Ten outside linebackers with 30 quarterback pressures last season. Still, Maryland's staff hoped it would be able to weather that loss by rotating as many as eight players along the defensive front. Yet only one player, senior defensive tackle Cavon Walker, has a sack in the past five games.
"A lot of it is that we're just not winning up front. You can't really put it on a lot of the coverage, because coverage has been tight," Buh said.
"We don't necessarily need sacks every time, but we need to get [the quarterback] off his spot and not let him sit there with his feet planted in the ground and throw strikes all day."
The lack of a pass rush has been a theme in October losses to some of the more prolific passing teams in the conference, including Ohio State and Northwestern, which compiled 303 and 293 yards passing against the Terrapins, respectively.
"It's tough. . . . We haven't been able to get [to the quarterback] the last couple of weeks, and it has hurt us on third down," senior linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. said.
While Maryland's pass rush was virtually nonexistent against the conservative attack of Wisconsin last week, it will be more imperative to generate some kind of pressure against the Hoosiers, who are averaging 236.3 passing yards behind talented freshman Peyton Ramsey.
Buh said this week that he is using the same blitz patterns that generated 38 sacks in 2016, yet he is trying to be more creative in an effort to jump-start the pass rush. The staff also has been forced to make decisions on whether to use heralded 2017 recruits to help alleviate the issue, including defensive linemen Cam Spence and twin brothers Breyon and Brandon Gaddy.
Those three are expected to be the centerpiece of Maryland's defensive line in the near future, but Durkin appears satisfied to redshirt the rookies despite their potential to help right away.
"There's guys we feel that need the benefit of redshirting that we've put in a developmental program that I'd rather not take out of that," Durkin said.
Durkin has built in live scrimmages on Mondays to help prepare his young defensive linemen, something he wasn't able to do as often during his first season, when he played 17 true freshmen in regular roles. His defense's struggles have tested Durkin's balance between building for the future and assessing the immediate needs of the present, with none more significant than finding a pass rush over the final five games of the regular season.
"There's no quick fix or scramble or anything like that," Durkin said. "It's just that we've got to be more consistent."
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