Through six games this season, there’s little doubt the Terrapins football team’s front seven makes up one of the most stout units in the nation. The linemen and linebackers manning the team’s 3-4 front have been nearly impenetrable all year, ranking No. 9 in the country against the run.
But the team’s pass defense has, at times, lagged behind. Stymied in the run game, opposing offenses have been forced to go to the air against the Terps. And in the early part of the schedule, the secondary has struggled to stay on the same page.
Cornerback Dexter McDougle committed three crucial pass interference penalties against William & Mary. Safety Anthony Nixon missed an open-field tackle on Temple wide receiver Jalen Fitzpatrick’s 35-yard touchdown reception. Cornerback Isaac Goins blew an assignment that allowed Wake Forest wide receiver Terence Davis to haul in a 73-yard touchdown pass. West Virginia wideout Tavon Austin burned the entire unit single-handedly, scoring touchdowns of 24, 34 and 44 yards.
Little by little, though, the Terps’ last line of defense — primarily consisting of McDougle, Nixon, cornerback Jeremiah Johnson and safety Eric Franklin — is tightening up. In the past two games, three opposing quarterbacks — the Demon Deacons’ Tanner Price and Virginia’s Phillip Sims and Michael Rocco — have combined to complete just 40 percent of their passes, 10 percent below the Terps’ season average.
“This is all a part of the process of what we’re going through and what we’re working to develop here,” coach Randy Edsall said Tuesday. “They have to go out with a mindset to say, ‘When I go to practice today, I’m going to get better in this aspect, or I’m going to get better in this or I’m going to get better on third down.’ That’s one thing that we’re starting to get.”
It hasn’t been a quick turnaround. The process began six weeks ago, following the Terps’ season-opening 7-6 victory. After the secondary allowed four of the Tribe’s 10 completions to go for more than 15 yards and committed three pass interference penalties — one that led directly to William & Mary’s first field goal of the contest — McDougle buried himself in game footage to see what went wrong.
“There’s no excuses for that this year,” the senior said. “After that, I was in the film room hours after we were supposed to, just by myself, just looking at what I can do to get better. You being the senior cornerback, you don’t want that to happen. You want the young guys to look up to you.”
It did have an effect on one of those young guys. Like McDougle, Johnson has elevated his play since the Terps’ season opener. His six pass breakups lead the team, and defensive coordinator Brian Stewart has praised the 6-foot defensive back for his knowledge of the game and willingness to study.
“I think J.J. and Dexter took it personally, what happened in that game, and decided to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to go and do things better.’ And I think they’ve done that,” Edsall said. “That’s why we’re seeing some improved play in the secondary.”
The Terps will likely need that improvement to continue this weekend against N.C. State. Edsall called Wolfpack quarterback Mike Glennon “probably the best guy that we face all year long.”
“He does a good job of getting his hips and his body to follow his throw, so he has some velocity on them. He can throw outside the numbers, he can throw down the field — they’re a vertical passing team that suits him well,” Stewart said yesterday. “We’re going to go after him, but he’s still the best pro-style, upright-style quarterback we’ve seen.”
But for McDougle and his teammates, it doesn’t matter which signal caller is leading the opposing offense. Taking a page out of his coach’s book, McDougle said the unit just wants to get better each week.
“Our confidence is up and our team is always behind us,” McDougle said. “We feed off that. We’re going to keep playing hard.”