Grading on a curve, Maryland might be at the head of the class.
Throw out one complete debacle against one of the nation’s best passing attacks, and the Terrapins would have every reason to brag about a stingy secondary that limits yardage as well as anybody in the Big Ten and nabs at least one interception every week.
But Maryland isn’t looking to manipulate its skewed numbers or make excuses for what happened when West Virginia carved up its defensive backs, humbling a talented, veteran group and handing them their only loss this season in the process. Instead, the Terps would rather be evaluated on the whole body of work, and while that leaves some ground to make up statistically on the rest of the league, the bad taste in their mouths from one failed test is driving them to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
“Obviously as a secondary we have a lot of pride, and we do understand that game wasn’t our best game,” senior cornerback Jeremiah Johnson told ESPN.com. “I think the past two weeks we’ve done a better job in the back end limiting the shots they’ve taken down the field and being closer to receivers.
“This week we’re playing a team that obviously has athletic receivers as well, and they’re going to try to go down the field. It’s just another opportunity for us to kind of change the perception of who we are.”
Figuring out exactly who the Terps are at this point is something of a challenge, thanks in large part to the 511 passing yards allowed in the shootout loss to West Virginia.
That total represents a full 44 percent of the yardage Maryland has allowed through five games, which can be either an indictment of the secondary against the best offense it has faced so far or a tribute to the work it has done in holding three other opponents under 174 yards -- including typically high-flying Indiana, which mustered just 126 a week ago at home.
The Buckeyes aren’t usually as well known for their work through the air, but redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett is coming off consecutive 300-yard outings and will certainly provide another chance for Maryland to figure out its defensive identity. And if it leans more towards the productive side that has shown up four times instead of the unit that was repeatedly burned in one game, the Terps might find themselves unexpectedly in position to contend in the East Division.
“I think defensively we’ve done a really good job from the standpoint that we’ve created a bunch of turnovers,” coach Randy Edsall said. “And we’ve done a really good job down in the red area with not letting people score. So we might have given up some yards on things, but the bottom line is keeping people out of the end zone. We pretty much did that except for the West Virginia game.
“Our kids are playing very, very hard on defense. They’re doing a good job of executing, and that’s what we have to keep doing. They understand our defense, they are communicating very well, and they’re stepping up when we need to have them step up.”
Starting with Johnson, Maryland also appears to understand exactly what went wrong against the Mountaineers as well.
The Terps weren’t the first victims of that uptempo attack, and they won’t be the last. But Johnson was quick to point to lost individual battles in “50-50 shots” that helped West Virginia rack up yardage rather than breakdowns in coverage or blown assignments. And with Ohio State’s Michael Thomas and Devin Smith both more than capable of getting behind the secondary and creating explosive plays, the Terps are well aware of how much Saturday’s home debut in the Big Ten might shape perception moving forward.
“I think the last couple weeks are a tribute to the work that we’ve put in during practice, just stepping up and working even harder,” Johnson said. “We don’t want to leave that bad impression with everyone.”
There might be no way to remove that ugly number from the grade book, but the Terps are intent on proving that it’s an outlier.