On one of the few plays Maryland football applied any sort of pressure on Tanner Morgan, the Minnesota quarterback found an emergency exit route.
The Terps brought four defenders on a third-and-5 midway through the first quarter Saturday, and linebacker Shaq Smith was forced behind the pocket by Golden Gophers left tackle Sam Schlueter. That left an avenue for Morgan to scramble out of the collapsing pocket, and he picked up 11 yards and a new set of downs.
For a defense that managed 12 sacks through the first two weeks, building excitement for defensive coordinator Jon Hoke’s scheme, the beginning of Big Ten play has been a harsh return to reality.
Maryland hardly supplied pressure against Minnesota. Pro Football Focus credits the defense with three quarterback hurries and a hit for a pressure rate of 15.4 percent — ranking 104th out of 110 teams graded that week — continuing a trend of mild blitzing and meager results.
“It’s been a couple bumpy games,” linebacker Keandre Jones said, who leads the Terps with six sacks. “It’s been up-and-down, kind of inconsistent.”
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Against Howard’s Division II-level offensive line, Maryland ran rampant, totaling eight sacks before crushing Syracuse quarterback Tommy DeVito another four times the next week. But since then, the Terps have struggled to get to the passer, particularly in losses.
They produced three against a hapless Rutgers squad in a 48-7 win, but the outputs from their five losses this season are uninspiring: one, zero, one, one, zero.
“Pass rushing is a big thing in our defense,” Smith said Sept. 24. “We want to affect the quarterback in a lot of ways that we can.”
As Smith pointed out then, affecting the quarterback doesn’t necessarily require sacks. Hits and hurries can disrupt a signal-caller’s rhythm as much as a big loss can. Even that has been in low quantity lately, however, and Jones said he’s been staying after practice to get extra work on the sled as he tries to find the quarterback once more — his last sack for loss came against Purdue three weeks ago.
The Terps’ four total pressures against Minnesota were a season-low, although the Golden Gophers dropped back just 22 times. Before Saturday’s results, Maryland had managed at least 13 pressures in each conference matchup so far, according to Pro Football Focus.
“We’re getting there, we’re getting the pressure,” Jones said. “It’s just finishing the job. Once we have him in the pocket, contain him.”
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Coach Mike Locksley said there’s a conscious decision made in the buildup to games whether Hoke’s unit should bring pressure or not. And against the Golden Gophers, a team that ran the ball 54 times against the Terps, the plan was to stop the run instead of trying to bring Morgan to the turf.
Minnesota picked up 321 yards on the ground anyway, the most Maryland has allowed this year, and coach P.J. Fleck’s squad averaged 5.9 yards per carry. It’s a worrisome sieve to suddenly appear before Michigan plays in College Park on Saturday, another run-heavy team that just posted 303 rushing yards in a 45-14 win over then-No. 8 Notre Dame.
“To me, we’ve got to stop the run,” Locksley said. “And our defense is always going to be built to stop the run first.”
But at a certain point, finding the quarterback could go a long way in helping a defense that’s allowed 400 or more yards in six of its eight games this season get back on track.
“We’ve just got to finish,” Jones said. “It’s been frustrating, but once we get that part down, it’s a long season — I know we’re running out of opportunities — but we’ve got another good opportunity against Michigan.”