With Maryland football’s Big Ten opener against Illinois knotted at 17 late, the Terps needed a stop. Their vaunted offense was sputtering and had only just rallied to tie the game, so, it was incumbent upon the defense to make a stand.
After surrendering a first down to the Fighting Illini, they turned up the pressure.
Greg Rose broke through Illinois’ offensive line on two straight plays, planting Brandon Peters in the backfield. Then, Sam Okuayinonu chased Peters, forcing the quarterback into an intentional grounding.
Maryland’s defense had done its job, and the offense rewarded it with a walk-off field goal.
That stand was nothing new for that unit, which was one of the Terps’ biggest question marks entering the season. Three games in, they’re a prime reason why Maryland sits at 3-0.
“Our defense is living up to our standard,” coach Mike Locksley said. “With some of the focus we’ve put on stopping the run, creating turnovers, limiting big plays, I’ve been pleased with that, and I feel like our players have bought into it.”
All three levels of the Terps’ defense have seen improvement, even with younger and more inexperienced players being pressed into action. That was particularly evident against the Fighting Illini.
The group held Illinois to 335 yards while registering six sacks and a takeaway, keeping Maryland close even as its offense stalled out drive after drive. Prior to Josh McCray’s third-quarter score, the Terps had not allowed a touchdown in more than 140 minutes of game time.
And when they needed to hold late in the game, they delivered.
That was led by Rose, a player who’s been unexpectedly thrust into big moments. The junior college transfer, only recently put on scholarship, has started each of the first three games at defensive tackle, mainly due to Mosiah Nasili-Kite’s toe injury. While he was solid in his first two outings, his impact on the final series against Illinois was monumental.
And he’s not the only new face in the front seven making an impact. True freshman linebacker Branden Jennings was forced into a starting role after Fa’Najae Gotay’s injury and caused a critical fumble in the win over West Virginia. He now leads the team with 14 tackles.
“Everybody on that defense has played with a lot of heart, a lot of effort and grit,” Rose said. “We refuse to be denied.”
He’s helped anchor a front seven that has allowed under 100 rushing yards per game so far, one of four Big Ten teams to do so.
That has forced opponents to attack the secondary, easily the defense’s deepest and best position group.
Nick Cross, Tarheeb Still, Jakorian Bennett and Jordan Mosley comprise the four-headed ball-hawking backfield. They’ve helped hold opponents to just 180.7 passing yards per contest while snaring four interceptions, double the number of picks in 2020.
Even with starting cornerback Deonte Banks’ shoulder injury, there’s a long list of players ready to step into the spotlight and replace his production.
“It just gives us a lot of confidence knowing there’s going to be no drop off,” Cross said. “Everybody has the same intensity, the same mental, physical toughness, the same grit and desire to go out and win. … It’s something that is relaxing to know that the guys out there, they know what they’re doing.”
Though there are still a few kinks to iron out — concerning penalties, missed tackles, a poor third down conversion percentage — and continuing injury concerns, the Terps’ defense is in a much better spot three weeks in than most expected.
As Maryland prepares for its final nonconference game against Kent State before leaping into the buzzsaw of Big Ten play, the defense knows it can’t let up. That unit helped the Terps get to this point undefeated, particularly when the offense has gone through lulls. Now, they need to carry it forward.
“We haven’t played perfect, but we’ve played to a certain standard,” Rose said.