November 3, 2012; College Park, MD, USA; Maryland Terrapins defensive back Dexter McDougle (25) in action against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at Byrd Stadium. Georgia Tech beat Maryland 33-13. Mandatory Credit: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports
Even though the Maryland Terrapins had a woeful 4-8 football team last year, the good news is that they definitely improved defensively (albeit marginally.) They only gave up 29.1 points per game against FBS opponents in 2012; in 2011, that number was 37.1 (13th worst in the nation). In terms of YoY improvement, there’s not a whole lot to complain about on the defensive end.
But keeping in mind that the offense left them high and dry with absolutely terrible field position more than a few times, there are still some areas Maryland has to get better in on the defensive side of the football. Here are a few:
1.) First Quarter, First Half Defense
Some teams thrive playing from behind the whole game; the Terps don’t need to be one of those teams. Take a look at the average points scored per quarter (against FBS opponents) for 2011 and 2012:
There are two things that really jump out at you. The first is that Maryland is phenomenal in the fourth quarter; they rank 31st in the nation among FBS schools in that regard. Teams in college football don’t really let off the throttle much when they’re playing (even with a lead), so the argument that just because Maryland is down after three quarters, the other teams lets up, doesn’t hold weight for me. Since nine of Maryland’s 12 games were decided be ten or fewer points, and in five of their eight losses the Terps were within ten points at the half, there is clearly somet voodoo magic going on that makes them a really effective fourth quarter team.
The second point is that they have gotten obliterated in the first quarter by comparison; they fall to 101nd nationally in points allowed in that segment. The Terps only held an opponent to three or fewer points in the first quarter three times last year: against Temple (3), N.C. State (0), and UVA (0). Every other game consisted of 6 or more points, with the highest being a whopping 21 v. Clemson. Road or home, it really didn’t matter.
So how do you rectify slow starts? That’s hard to say. Part of the blame lays solely on the coaching staff, as they should have their team prepared for battle from the get-go. Teams have a week (and sometimes more) to comb over film and ready themselves to go up against an offense, so it’s on the coaching staff to further drill those points home. Granted other teams get a chance to do that, too, Maryland should be better at it. The fact that the Terps make second half adjustments is promising (they give up, on average, 3 fewer points in the second half), but they need to be ready to play when they step on the field.
2.) Paging All Ball Hawks
It’s not news to anyone that great defenses force turnovers, and that’s a department that Maryland was absolutely horrendous in last year. Their four total interceptions placed them at 122nd in the nation amongst FBS teams in interceptions per game, wedged between Temple and New Mexico State. Then take into consideration that two of those interceptions came from Joe Vellano and Demetrius Hartsfield, and you get the idea that the Terps secondary was far from shut-down mode.
Even though Kenny Tate played in nine games, he was nowhere near the guy who was tied for career interceptions in the ACC and only saw limited action. Combine that with losing Matt Robinson in the secondary (though he is now a linebacker) and you can see it really hurt Maryland in the turnover department. No one else in the secondary was capable of serious highway robbery, but to be fair a lot of that has to do with throwing in two inexperienced guys in at safety and possessing no deep coverage.
So how do they improve? In a way, they may already be. There’s some scary talent and experience amongst the DBs, with Dexter McDougle and Jeremiah Johnson the likely starters. McDougle had 71 tackles last year, and with some more experience at safety, he may be able to get back to his three interception sophomore year. Meanwhile, Johnson is a guy who is just as athletic as McDougle, and was definitively better than McDougle in coverage (though he isn’t as good a tackler.) Those two combined should be shut down, barring injury if..
…the safeties perform up to snuff. Sean Davis and Anthony Nixon are two young fellas, and they’re going to be young next year. They have to have learned the positions better, and can’t be such liabilities on deep balls. That leads back to coaching, film study, and experience — all three of which they should have gotten last year. If that happens, Maryland could be in for a good year in the turnover department.
3.) Strong Down The Stretch
Maryland has gone 0-12 the last two seasons in their final six games, and have been outscored 436-228 combined. While some of that can be blamed on the offense, that’s a culture thing. It’s also a schedule thing, since three of last year’s final six games featured Florida State, North Carolina, and Clemson. But if you think next year will provide any gimmes, you’re wrong. For Maryland, they’ve got to show up every game (even when they might be out of bowl contention.)
Look, it’s tough to pin the blame on the defense for last year considering how admirably they played. But they did get gouged over the last three games (while we had a linebacker at QB), so there are some things to work on. Doing only one of these will likely mean the difference between bowl eligibility and another 4-12 season.