Maryland defensive coordinator Don Brown examined tape after tape of Clemson’s offense, an outfit that never looked quite the same two games in a row.
So heading into last week’s game, Brown decided to keep things simple early on, trotting out a base defense to pick and probe (and occasionally suffer an indignity or two) before responding after a couple of possessions.
It was, in a sense, similar to the process the whole unit undertook in the first month of the season. Initially, the Terrapins (2-3, 1-0 ACC) seemed befuddled and incoherent while adapting to Brown’s frenetic approach, but they stabilized to produce consecutive strong outings entering Saturday’s visit to ACC total offense leader Wake Forest (3-2, 1-1).
“Everyone’s just more comfortable now in the defense and knowing what everyone else is doing,” linebacker Alex Wujciak said. “You just have a feeling the person you’re supposed to fit with is going to be there with you because you’ve done it in games before.”
It certainly wasn’t true last month, when the Terps were shredded in their opener at California. That wasn’t a particularly shocking development, but subsequent struggles against James Madison and Middle Tennessee highlighted some problems.
Some of it was a matter of growth. The defensive line owned seven career starts entering the season. Linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield had never played. Safety Jamari McCollough and cornerback Nolan Carroll went down with injuries.
The arc of the first half of the season, in turn, was reflected in the opening possessions Saturday. Brown, never one for caution, stuck with a 4-3 look - at one point featuring an all-freshman front four of tackles A.J. Francis and Zach Kerr and ends Isaiah Ross and Carl Russell - until he deciphered Clemson’s plans.
“What I was trying to figure out was, ‘What are they going to do to us?’ ” Brown said. “Once we sunk our teeth in and figured it out, our guys played extremely well through the second and third and fourth quarters. If I could, I’d go for the jugular in the first minute. Unfortunately, those guys get paid to coach, too, and you have to kind of play it out.”
Consider it a bit of aggressive patience, an ethos the Terps are finding more success with of late. Maryland yielded more than 466 yards an outing in the first three games, then slashed it to an average of 262 the past two weeks.
It’s even more apparent on a micro level. Opponents gashed the Terps for 21 plays of at least 20 yards in the first three games. Rutgers and Clemson combined for four.
“The first game against Cal, I was wondering, ‘What happened to all the calls we’ve been running for the past couple months?’ ” Hartsfield said. “Now I understand what [Brown] does. He waits to see what the other team is doing sometimes, and then he attacks it.”
About the only thing missing for most of the season was takeaways; the Terps entered October with three. They matched that total last week, with McCollough’s interception and Hartsfield’s sack and fumble recovery ending Clemson drives late in both halves.
“I’m trying not to squawk too much because I think sometimes when you make too much of it, it screws you up,” Brown said. “You harp on it so hard and prepare to get it done, and then the guys get self-conscious. Whatever they get, bottom line is we certainly had two meaningful ones last week.”
Other factors have helped, too. Cameron Chism emerged as a sound replacement for Carroll. McCollough returned to allow Brown to utilize Kenny Tate in the way he originally anticipated. Redshirt freshmen Francis and Hartsfield incrementally improved each week.
And after taking some lumps in the first quarter of the season, the Terps might have figured things out just in time for conference play.
“I knew there would be an adjustment period,” coach Ralph Friedgen said. “I think it’s kind of a dual situation. Our players are getting comfortable with Don’s scheme, but I also think Don’s getting more comfortable with what they can and can’t do. Like any good coach, he’s adapted some of the things he does to what they can do. I think both of those cases are why we’re improving.”