At Maryland’s preseason media day, new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis emphasized the importance of a strong offensive line and hinted at past struggles without one.
“It’s hard to do anything if you don’t have an offensive line,” said Gattis, who previously worked at Miami and Michigan. “This is not a game that you can play in a 7-on-7 format as the season gets going. ... As soon as that position falls apart, typically your team and you’re all going to fall apart. Unfortunately, I have been around that previously.”
He might be feeling some unwelcome déjà vu with the Terps, who faced questions about the unit entering the season. The group had little Big Ten experience, with one returning starter joining a host of small-school transfers and former backups lacking pedigree that Maryland hoped would develop into starters.
The unit, aided by an early schedule against inferior competition and quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa’s ability to escape pressure, helped Maryland jump out to a 5-0 start.
But in the last four games — particularly the two against the elite Big Ten teams the Terps want to measure themselves against — the line’s flaws have been exposed. Maryland lost all four.
Part of it is on Tagovailoa, a fifth-year senior. Over the previous three seasons, Tagovailoa allowed around 20% of his pressures to turn into sacks, according to Pro Football Focus. He looked to have fixed that issue through the first five weeks of 2023, taking sacks on about 6% of pressured dropbacks.
However, over the last four games, including contests against No. 3 Ohio State, Illinois, Northwestern and No. 9 Penn State, that number has rocketed up to around 28%.
But Maryland’s pressures allowed, a stat that correlates with the quality of play on the offensive line, have also gone up, rising from about nine per game through the first five weeks to 15 per game in the last four.
In the 51-15 blowout to Penn State, Tagovailoa had a season-low 2.41 seconds to throw, per PFF, indicating opposing rushers were getting to him faster. Without any kind of run game (more on that in a bit), Tagovailoa threw and threw and threw, dropping back to pass 46 times. It worked well in some ways; he completed his first 17 passes and 21 of his first 22. But he was pressured on a season-high 18 dropbacks and took six sacks — one week after taking six against Northwestern.
“The interior part of our protection, whether it’s the centers and the guards or our backs on those linebackers, they outplayed us,” coach Michael Locksley said after the loss to the Nittany Lions. “And we had hats for hats, so it wasn’t as if guys were coming free, but we didn’t win the one-on-one battles against a really good front seven.”
One such example came at the end of the first quarter. Tagovailoa dropped back with the Penn State rushing five, including linebacker and potential All-American Abdul Carter coming up the middle on a well-timed blitz. Maryland looked to have it contained with center Mike Purcell, but Carter drove through him to sack the quarterback.
“We just got to be able to protect our quarterback a little bit better to give him time,” Locksley said. “When he was given time and we were able to get the ball out quick, we had success.”
On the ground, Maryland entered its game against Ohio State ranked seventh in the country in EPA per rush, according to CFB Graphs. EPA (Expected Points Added) models how many points an offense gained or lost on a specific play, accounting for down, distance and other factors.
After rushing for 106 yards against the Buckeyes, with no ball-carrier surpassing 38 yards on the ground, the Terps improved against Illinois (4.4 yards per rush) and Northwestern (6.8 yards per rush).
But it all came crashing down against Penn State, who held Terrapin running backs to minus-6 yards on seven carries. Maryland’s issues with run-blocking were apparent. On a first-and-10 in the second quarter, Purcell and left guard Amelio Morán attempted a double-team on Carter.
Attempted is the key word — the linebacker split through both and met running back Roman Hemby at the line of scrimmage. Even if Hemby had evaded Carter, it wouldn’t have mattered. No Maryland offensive lineman made it to the second level, letting linebacker Kobe King fill the hole to assist on the tackle.
Maryland, needing some kind of running spark with under 10 minutes left in the third quarter, brought in Andre Roye as a sixth offensive lineman to start a drive. It didn’t work. Roye and a pulling Morán did not give Hemby the room he needed and the back was hit two yards behind the line of scrimmage.
The Terps tried to run the ball out of spread sets, Locksley said, creating one-on-one matchups across the line that they consistently lost.
“When you’ve got five guys up front that have to cover the guy up, they have to block their man. ... We didn’t cover people up and the run game didn’t ever get started,” he said.
Four games into its losing streak, Maryland now ranks 26th in EPA per rush. As Gattis warned, a leaky offensive line can brings things down quickly.
Locksley has said he feels his team needs to run the football to win in the Big Ten, a belief he reiterated Tuesday.
“As you prepare and play in the Big Ten, the ability to run the ball, especially this time of the year is really important,” he said. “We’re working hard to get the run game corrected and figure out ... the best way for us to run the ball based on what we’re doing on our offensive line and based on what our backs can get executed.”