EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — When the Terrapins football team has needed a big, momentum-shifting play from the defense, it has delivered so far this year. And usually, outside linebackers Marcus Whitfield and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil have been in the middle of it.
So it was no surprise Saturday night that when the Terps forced Connecticut quarterback Chandler Whitmer to commit an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone for a safety, Whitfield was closing in, with Cudjoe-Virgil close behind. The two points created a three-possession lead as the Terps defeated the Huskies, 32-21, at Rentschler Field.
The outside linebacker duo, both of whom are listed at the same position but were often on the field at the same time, terrorized the UConn backfield for much of the contest. Cudjoe-Virgil sacked Whitmer 2.5 times, while Whitfield added three sacks of his own.
“We both talk and argue with another on who has the most sacks,” Whitfield said. “It’s definitely competition between me and Yannik and the defensive line and the other pass rushers out there, which also helps us. It basically just opens it up more for both of us. We both have the speed, and we both use the speed.”
Coach Randy Edsall said the Terps entered the matchup with the goal of stopping UConn’s rushing attack. And they did. The Huskies rushed 33 times for just 25 yards, forcing the ball into Whitmer’s hands to make plays against the Terps pass rushers. The Terps rush defense is now tied for 14th nationally with 96.7 yards allowed per game.
While Whitmer (349 yards passing) and wide receiver Shakim Phillips (10 catches, 178 yards, one touchdown) had career days, the Terps defense still managed to harass the UConn offensive line and put defenders in the Huskies playmakers’ faces.
Through three games, the Terps rank first in the nation in sacks per game with 4.67.
Pressure on Whitmer helped lead to two interceptions by cornerback Dexter McDougle. On the first one, The senior laid out down the sideline for an acrobatic catch. Then, he jumped a route and returned a pick 49 yards for a touchdown to give the Terps a 27-13 lead in the third quarter. McDougle also had eight tackles.
“It’s all the excitement,” Whitfield said. “We see someone pick off the ball, we get excited. Dex taking it back, the touchdown. You take another step. It shows the defense is working. It’s always going to work. It’s just exciting to see all the other players around you do well.”
The excitement of the victory was tempered slightly as McDougle suffered a right shoulder injury in the third quarter and will miss the rest of the season. The Terps’ other starting cornerback, Jeremiah Johnson, is still out for six to seven weeks with a fractured toe on his left foot.
But the defense wasn’t fazed. Cornerback Will Likely stepped in for McDougle and performed well, aided by the Terps’ pass rush.
“We came in, there was no pressure,” said Likely, a freshman. “Just play together, do my cues, just do my job. That’s what I came to do.”
Despite holding down the Huskies’ rushing attack and putting pressure on the backfield, there was still plenty of room for improvement for the Terps. With McDougle out for the season, they’ll need more defensive backs to step up, especially with West Virginia’s spread offense up next on the schedule. Whitmer was able to shred the defense in garbage time, finding Phillips for a 75-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter.
“Once you start thinking about it, there’s a lot of mistakes that we left out on the field that we’re going to have to correct if we want to keep moving forward and keep winning,” inside linebacker Cole Farrand said. “That’s what we’re going to take on tomorrow. Hopefully we’ll fix those mistakes and be a better team for next game.”
But the end result of Saturday’s game — a win that marked the program’s first 3-0 start since 2001 — was hard to argue with. With Whitfield and Cudjoe-Virgil getting steady pressure and making plays on other teams’ quarterbacks, there’s another dimension to a Terps team that’s struggled on defense in the past.
“We just go out there and do our job,” Whitfield said. “Our job is to go out there and do our job. Our job is to get the ball into the offense’s hand as quick as possible. … Every team has their ups and downs, but we pulled together as the full team and got the win.”