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Maryland strives to improve Big Ten's worst defense

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Maryland strives to improve Big Ten's worst defense

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Maryland's season is spinning out of control, and the Terrapins find themselves defenseless in their bid to stop it.

Although much of the attention at Maryland this season has focused on the quarterback position, the team's most obvious flaw is its porous defense.

The Terrapins have yielded an average of 36.5 points per game, which ranks last in the Big Ten and 115th of 129 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. They are permitting 439 yards per game -- last in the Big Ten and 104th in the FBS.

Over the past two games, Maryland (3-3, 1-2) has given up 99 points and 1,115 yards. One big reason is that the Terrapins have one sack in their last three games.

"We definitely need more pressure on the quarterback," coach DJ Durkin said Tuesday. "That's pretty much a staple of football. If you allow a quarterback to be patient and calm in the pocket, they usually find a guy open."

That's happened more times this season than Durkin would care to remember, and goes a long way toward explaining why Maryland's pass defense is 107th in the FBS.

Even though injuries have cost the Terrapins their top two quarterbacks , perhaps the most notable injury is the broken ankle sustained by defensive end Jesse Aniebonam in the season opener. Aniebonam had nine sacks, 14 tackles for a loss and 30 quarterback hurries in 2016.

"It's been a little shaky getting through it," defensive back Antoine Brooks Jr. said.

"When you lose Jesse off the bat like that, he's your main pass rusher," end Brett Kulka said. "So it's going to be an issue to work through."

Durkin got the job at Maryland after a successful runs as a defensive coordinator at Florida and Michigan. In his second season at Maryland, he's tried just about everything to turn things around with this unit.

In the end, though, it comes down to individual effort.

"I'm sure there's always times when you can have a better call in certain situations, but guys have to win 1-on-1s," Durkin said. "If they keep enough guys in the block, someone's got to win a 1-on-1. It's really an attitude and a demeanor. It's about having the right attitude of, `I'm going to go win. I'm going to beat a block.'"

That didn't happen often last weekend in a 37-21 loss to Northwestern. Not only did the Wildcats pass for 293 yards, but tailback Justin Jackson rambled for 171 yards.

It was the third defeat in four games for the Terps. Things don't get any easier Saturday against No. 5 Wisconsin and Big Ten rushing leader Jonathan Taylor, who amassed 219 yards on the ground last week in a win over Purdue .

"He's hard to tackle," Durkin said. "He's got good speed, good vision. He understands what they do. Where to hit the hole, when to be patient how the blocks are going to unfold."

It's going to take a huge effort from the Maryland defense to pull off an upset.

"We need to go back to the basics," Brooks said. "We need to run to the ball more, make more tackles, cause more turnovers."

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Maryland overcomes sloppy start, rally past Rhode Island

Maryland overcomes sloppy start, rally past Rhode Island

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Jalen Smith had 19 points and 11 rebounds, Anthony Cowan Jr. scored all 14 of his points in the second half and turnover-prone No. 7 Maryland overcame a sloppy start and a double-digit deficit, beating Rhode Island 73-55 on Saturday night.

Eric Ayala added 13 points and Aaron Wiggins (13 points, 13 rebounds) posted his first career double-double for the Terrapins, who trailed 24-12 with eight minutes left in the first half, but ultimately breezed to a 2-0 start with a dominant second half.

Jeff Dowtin led the Rams (1-1) with 14 points.

Maryland committed 14 of its 17 turnovers in the first half, allowing Rhode Island to lead for more than 18 minutes. But Wiggins' 3-pointer less than a minute before the break secured the Terps a 35-32 lead.

While the Rams briefly tied it early in the second half, Maryland controlled the final 20 minutes. Cowan scored nine points in a row for the Terps during one stretch, and his layup with 10:52 to go gave Maryland its first double-digit lead at 53-42. Rhode Island never got any closer.

Maryland improved to 4-1 all-time against the Rams, claiming the teams' first meeting since 2015.

BIG PICTURE

Rhode Island: The Rams were picked fourth in the Atlantic 10, and their first-half showing at Maryland suggests they could be a handful for anyone in their conference. The same is true of their ambitious nonconference schedule, which includes Alabama, Louisiana State, Providence and West Virginia.

Maryland: Turnovers have haunted the Terps in recent years, and the return of that problem after committing only eight in Tuesday's season opener against Holy Cross is a concern. Expect that to be a focus in the coming week as Maryland goes seven days between games.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

With a pair of victories in the season's first week, Maryland is unlikely to drop when the next poll is released Monday.

UP NEXT

Rhode Island: The Rams face their second consecutive power conference opponent Friday when they host Alabama.

Maryland: The Terps' season-opening five-game homestand continues Nov. 16 against Oakland.

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Maryland at Minnesota: Can the Terps end Minnesota’s undefeated season?

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Maryland at Minnesota: Can the Terps end Minnesota’s undefeated season?

Maryland (3-4, 1-3 Big Ten) will look to snap a two-game losing streak on Saturday against a Minnesota team (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) that has yet to lose a game this season and is currently ranked 17th in the nation. The game is set for 3:30 p.m. on ESPN.

Here are five things to know for Saturday’s game.

Jackson and McFarland are expected to return

Quarterback Josh Jackson and running back Anthony McFarland Jr. have both been dealing with high-ankle sprains, but both are expected to return Saturday.

Jackson has not played since suffering the injury against Rutgers on Oct. 5. He provides more of passing threat than backup quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome, who is much better on the ground than through the air.

McFarland suffered his injury in the game against Temple but played through it until he was forced to miss last game against Indiana. McFarland was clearly limited by the injury. After rushing for 132 yards against the Owls, he managed just 115 yards on 20 carries in his next three games.

Maryland’s pass defense is awful

There’s no real way to sugarcoat this. The Terps have really struggled to defend the pass this season and have the worst pass defense in the Big Ten. Maryland is giving up up 287.4 yards per game through the air. Not only is that the most in the conference, but it also ranks 118th nationally. Only six Power 5 conference teams are averaging more.

A thin secondary plus an emphasis on pressuring the quarterback often leaves the defense vulnerable against the pass. You could accept that if the defense was at least getting good pressure on the quarterback, but it’s not. In the last five games, the Terps have managed six sacks, and three of those six came against Rutgers.

The good news is that the Golden Gophers may not have the weapons to exploit Maryland’s defense. Quarterback Tanner Morgan is leading a middle-of-the-pack pass offense that is averaging 231.9 yards per game, good for 8th in the Big Ten. Receiver Tyler Johnson is always a threat to score, however, with 26 career touchdown receptions, the second-most in school history.

The key for both offenses will be running the ball

Even with Jackson back neither offense is all that formidable through the air. This game is going to be decided largely on what each offense can do on the ground. That is one aspect in which the Terps could have an edge.

Maryland is averaging 207.1 yards per game on the ground over Minnesota’s 187.9. The Golden Gophers could also be without linebacker Kamal Martin who is the team’s leading tackler. He is considered a game-time decision.

While the Terps have been better running the football on the season, Minnesota is really starting to hit its stride. In the past three games, the Gophers have managed 332 rushing yards against Illinois, 322 rushing yards against Nebraska and 198 rushing yards against Rutgers. Those are three big games against three conference opponents (yes, Rutgers still counts).

Maryland beat an undefeated Minnesota last year

Minnesota jumped out to a 3-0 record last season before the Terps handed the Gophers their first loss.

Winning seven straight is an accomplishment, to be sure. Maryland is a team that routinely loses games it is not supposed to, so you have to applaud the Gophers for their hot start. Having said that, we still don’ really know how good this Minnesota team without any big wins on their resume. The AP voters are skeptical as well, evidenced by the fact that a 7-0 Power 5 team is still ranked outside of the top 15. 

The Gophers’ best win is a 34-7 blowout over Nebraska, but Minnesota also has a seven-point win over Sout Dakota State and three-point wins over Fresno State and Georgia Southern.

There does not appear to be any aspect of the game in which Minnesota is statistically dominant. This is just a team that is average to pretty good in multiple aspects and has taken advantage of a soft schedule. This will be a tough game for Maryland, but it is not quite as difficult as their 7-0 record would make you believe.

Minnesota may be looking past the Terps

Minnesota’s schedule has been soft up to this point, but it is about to get a whole lot harder. The next game on the schedule after Maryland is Penn State followed by a trip to Iowa. Minnesota then goes to Northwestern and will finish the season hosting Wisconsin in the battle for Paul Bunyon’s Ax.

The Gophers will get a bye week before hosting Penn State, but it would not be surprising if the minds of the players are not squarely focused on a 3-4 Maryland team this week.

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