Maryland football is looking to build on its strong start to the season with a victory against Kent State Sept. 25. In Maryland’s win against Illinois Sept. 17, the Terps came back from a seven-point fourth-quarter deficit, earning both their first road and conference victory of the season.
Here are three things to look for against Kent State.
No. 1: Stopping the run defensively.
In the Terps’ five-game 2020 season, Maryland’s defense struggled mightily stopping the run. Last season, opponents averaged 230 rushing yards per game, consistently finding open holes in the run game.
However, thus far this season the Terps’ run defense has vastly improved, with opponents averaging just 88 yards on the ground through three games. An important factor in that improvement is that both veterans and younger players have contributed in the front seven.
Sam Okuayinonu, Lawtez Rogers, Ami Finau and Mosiah Nasili-Kite have each progressed as the tone-setters and leaders of the group. Beyond the veterans, strong efforts from newcomers like former walk-on Greg Rose and freshman Darrell Jackson have strengthened the front seven’s ability to plug up holes and stop the run.
Cognizant of last year’s struggles stopping the run, head coach Michael Locksley and his staff committed to improving in that area. As last season progressed, the Terps played more man-to-man coverage on the back end, loading the box to stop the run. That paid dividends down the stretch last season and has progressed further under new defensive coordinator Brian Stewart.
“Starting with the second half of the Minnesota game on [last year], I thought we started doing a better job of stopping the run because we made a commitment to playing man coverage,” Locksley said. “We added the extra safety down there and we found out that we had a talented secondary that could play man coverage. What I feel you see now is we’ve built on it.”
Stewart and the Terps still primarily utilize man coverage with great athleticism and length in the secondary. Stopping the run remains an important emphasis against Kent State and beyond as the schedule becomes more daunting.
No. 2: Spreading the wealth offensively.
Maryland’s victory against Illinois Sept. 17 demonstrated the Terps’ versatility and depth at the wide receiver position. Junior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa connected with eight different receivers, and five players finished with at least four receptions.
Senior Dontay Demus led the way with eight catches for 77 yards, while junior Jeshaun Jones and senior Darryl Jones notched five catches. Sophomore Rakim Jarrett continued to be a threat out of the slot with four catches. Redshirt senior running back Tayon Fleet-Davis tallied six grabs out of the backfield.
Each receiver possesses a unique skill set, presenting a challenge for opposing defenses and their coordinators. Demus is the strong, physical outside receiver, while Jeshuan Jones and Jarrett thrive after the catch creating additional yards. Darryl Jones and Brian Cobbs are reliable veteran receivers who often don’t generate as much attention from opposing defenses.
“That’s exactly what it is, it’s pick your poison,” Jeshaun Jones said of trying to slow down Maryland’s receiving corps. “Whoever you think you want to stop you can try. My role is to just do my job and when plays come, just make the most of my opportunities.”
The variation of talent among the receivers and their ability to separate has aided Tagovailoa’s development in his second season as the starter. The junior passer is Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded quarterback in the Big Ten.
Against Kent State, Tagovailoa and the Terps’ receivers will look to replicate that production across the board.
No. 3: Winning the turnover battle.
For the first time all season, the Terps finished with a negative turnover differential against Illinois. Fleet-Davis and sophomore running back Peny Boone each fumbled in the second half, giving the Fighting Illini momentum. However, Fleet-Davis bounced back with the game-tying 10-yard touchdown reception on a swing route out of the backfield.
The Terps will look to reverse that trend and get back on the right side of the turnover battle against Kent State. Both of the turnovers against Illinois interrupted Maryland’s momentum offensively and allowed the Fighting Illini to keep the game close and ultimately take the lead.
Despite those two turnovers, Maryland’s defense remained opportunistic, as junior safety Nick Cross intercepted Brandon Peters in the red zone during the third quarter. Both Cross and senior cornerback Jakorian Bennett have a pair of interceptions through three games, capitalizing on their opportunities.
Eliminating the fumbles offensively is important, as Tagovailoa has effectively protected the ball through three games. He has not thrown an interception yet and has eliminated many of the poor decisions that cost him last season against Northwestern and Indiana.
To start the season 4-0 for the first time since 2016, Maryland needs to protect the ball and capitalize on Kent State’s mistakes.
“Kent State is a team that’s already played two top-10 football teams and they didn’t blink,” Locksley said of the Golden Flashes, who have faced Texas A&M and Iowa. “I can tell you they won’t come into the Shell intimidated.”
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox