November 8, 2006
COLLEGE PARK - Kudos to Chris Cosh.
Angry fans were ready to ride Cosh out of town on a rail earlier this season, after the Maryland defense was shredded for 383 yards and 45 points in a lopsided loss to West Virginia. Calls for the first-year defensive coordinator to be fired grew louder with each passing week, as the Terrapins consistently gave up big yardage, even to lightweights such as Middle Tennessee State and Florida International.
Cosh and the defense quieted the critics, at least temporarily, with some gutsy performances during Maryland's four-game winning streak into November.
Maryland's defense isn't exactly shutting down opponents, but the much-maligned unit is doing whatever it takes to help the team win. Perhaps there is something to this bend-but-don't-break strategy after all.
Without question, the Maryland defense turned in its finest effort in several seasons during a stunning 13-12 upset of No. 19 Clemson. The Tigers piled up 410 yards of total offense, but they could not move the ball in the red zone and were forced to settle for four field goals.
Outside linebacker Erin Henderson led the way as the Terps held one of the most dangerous offenses in the ACC without a touchdown, while earning their first road victory over a ranked opponent since 2001.
"I can't tell you how proud I am of the defense. They just won't give in," Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said. "I thought our defense played phenomenal today. If you told me we'd hold this team to 12 points, I'd say you're crazy."
Maryland entered the game ranked 100th out of 119 Division I-A teams in rushing defense, allowing an average of 169.2 yards per game.
However, defensive tackles Conrad Bolston, Dre Moore and Carlos Feliciano were stout inside, as the Tigers' vaunted running combination of James Davis and C.J. Spiller was held to 131 yards, well below their season average. Ends Jeremy Navarre and Mack Frost, along with linebacker-end Trey Covington (eight tackles), also played key roles as the Terps maintained gap control, clogged the running lanes, got off blocks and made plays in open space.
Afterward, Cosh called it the team's best tackling effort to date. Henderson and fellow linebackers David Holloway (six tackles) and Wesley Jefferson made some great open-field stops. Safety Marcus Wimbush (nine tackles) and especially cornerback Josh Wilson (seven) also had big games against Clemson.
Friedgen felt the final numbers were a bit deceiving, since Clemson picked up almost half of its production on three plays totaling 173 yards. Davis rushed for 90 yards, but nearly half of that came on a 42-yard run.
"We gave up some plays, we made some mistakes, but we found a way to make stops when our backs were against the goal line," Friedgen said. "Our character came through when it counted."
Fans still should be concerned about the overall picture with the defense, which is allowing an average of 365 yards per game. One of the most bizarre stats of this season is the fact that Maryland has been out-gained in each of its last six wins - over Middle Tennessee State (361-294), Florida International (310-271), Virginia (440-371), N.C. State (326-314), Florida State (475-265) and Clemson (410-289).
However, the last four games brought many positive signs, and the fact that Cosh has made adjustments with both schemes and personnel is very encouraging.
When Bolston asked to play nose guard instead of tackle because he felt more comfortable penetrating than containing, Cosh listened and made the change. The coordinator also has come up with some innovative strategies, such as bumping outside linebacker Rick Costa down to rush end and shifting Navarre inside to tackle in certain packages.
Against Clemson, Cosh created what he called a "stack" alignment, by moving the linebackers farther off the line of scrimmage.
"Coach got us off the line a little more, to give us time to beat blocks and basically confuse their linemen and backs," Holloway said. "I know the numbers don't necessarily show it right now, but I think we have a good defense. I think we have a defense that is getting more and more dangerous with this momentum we've got going."
Cosh also is using a lot of players, giving more and more time to such promising youngsters as strong-side linebacker Dave Philistin and free safety J.J. Justice. As a unit, the defense is finding more playmakers, and the result has been an increase in sacks and takeaways.
HEYWARD-BEY ENDING DROUGHT?
Through two head coaches, Maryland desperately has sought to sign or develop a big-time wide receiver.
Neither Ron Vanderlinden nor Friedgen has been able to land that receiver with the rare combination of size and speed, that physical and athletic force who demands double coverage, that game-breaker who could stretch the field horizontally and vertically.
Of course, both Vanderlinden and Friedgen thought they found that special talent. Maurice Shanks was among the Vandy recruits touted as a future All-ACC selection. Andrew Weatherly tops the very modest list of Fridge signees at the position.
The reality is that the Terps are working on a decade without a truly great receiver. Jermaine Lewis (1992-95) was the last Maryland wideout to make first-team All-ACC and be selected in the NFL draft.
During that same time, it seems as if every other team in the ACC has enjoyed the services of a stud wideout, and many of them have killed the Terps. There have been Peter Warrick, Laveranues Coles and countless others at Florida State, Torry Holt and Koren Robinson at N.C. State, Dez White and Calvin Johnson at Georgia Tech. Heck, even Wake Forest had Desmond Clark.
Well, folks, the drought may be over. Redshirt freshman Darrius Heyward-Bey looks as if he could be the type of receiver the Terps have been hoping for. It's still early, and the 6-2, 206-pound speedster clearly has a long way to go, but the raw talent is there.
First and foremost, Heyward-Bey has the one truly important trait necessary to be a big-time wideout - world-class speed. He was a high school All-American as a track sprinter, placing fifth at the nationals in both the 100- and 200-yard dashes. He has run 55 meters in 6.35 seconds and the 40-yard dash in 4.38. Heyward-Bey also has a big frame and a 40-inch vertical leap, both of which allow him to go and get balls while covered closely by cornerbacks.
Friedgen has lauded the potential of the sleek-looking wideout ever since Heyward-Bey showed up in College Park, and the former SuperPrep All-American is starting to transform that into performance.
Heyward-Bey leads Maryland with 29 receptions for 364 yards and two touchdowns. He is averaging 13.8 yards per catch, with a long of 57. The youngster also has given the Terps a legitimate deep threat opponents must respect.
Friedgen, who is serving as his own offensive coordinator this season, was extremely conservative in the passing game through the initial five games. He basically played dink and dunk with the running backs and tight ends, but he has started to open things up, as the young receiving corps has matured and developed.
With Weatherly still sidelined by an injury, the Terps have been forced to rely primarily on Heyward-Bey, along with sophomores Isaiah Williams and Danny Oquendo. That trio is showing more and more promise by the week and steadily earning Friedgen's trust.
Friedgen knew Maryland would struggle to run the ball against Clemson, so he went into the game planning to throw the ball more. Quarterback Sam Hollenbach and the receiving corps came through with big play after big play.
Hollenbach had one of the finest passing days of his career, completing 23 of 34 passes for 247 yards and a touchdown. Williams had his most productive game as a Terp, with five catches for 66 yards, while Oquendo grabbed five balls for 36 yards, including a seven-yard scoring strike.
"We finally made some plays downfield, and we got a little swagger going," Williams said. "I mean, Sam was putting the ball right where it needs to be, and you got receivers making plays.