Terps' green secondary is a primary concern Vanderlinden laments defensive inexperience

October 14, 1997|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- The coach could have used a more encouraging diagnosis for what ails the Maryland football team's defense.

"We're in a Catch-22, with a choice of a slow death or a fast one," Ron Vanderlinden said of inexperience in the secondary. "We can get up close on receivers, but then they'll run by you and get points quickly. Or, you can take a more cautious approach, give the cornerback some success. The downside to that is that the chains keep moving."

Maryland plays at Wake Forest on Saturday (1 p.m.), and if the Terps want to beat the Demon Deacons for the fifth straight year, they've got to tighten their pass coverage.

Like Maryland, Wake Forest is 2-4, but it has the leading passer in the Atlantic Coast Conference in junior Brian Kuklick. The Demon Deacons also have film of last week's Maryland-West Virginia game, which shows the Mountaineers converting one third-down situation after another, 10 of 15 in all.

Playing tight, man-to-man coverage on the wideouts and stacking nine men in the box is currently in vogue with defensive coordinators, but it's an approach the Terps can't take, because they are so green at cornerback.

There are code names for Maryland's assorted coverages, and "Charmin" would describe the way the Terps played against West Virginia -- soft.

Vanderlinden knew that his first season at Maryland might hinge on some fellow rookies, and the secondary is still searching for its comfort level.

Troy Davidson, the right cornerback, was the Terps' best young receiver at the end of last season, but was moved to the secondary last spring. Lynde Washington, a 5-foot-6 sophomore, played sparingly last year and has been the starter at left corner, but junior Clifton Crosby got an extended audition there last week.

Crosby suffered a fluke injury on the first day of practice in August, when the flap on a receiver's shoulder pads somehow came through his helmet and lacerated his right eye and fractured the orbital bone. He underwent surgery twice, and wondered if he would even play this year.

"I was just surprised to get in against West Virginia," Crosby said of his 1997 debut. "It was my first full week with the new coaching staff. Nobody scored a touchdown on me, and I did as good a job as I could keeping the receiver in front of me."

Crosby started the second half, and West Virginia quarterback Marc Bulger attacked him. During a tidy 76-yard touchdown drive, he went to Crosby's receiver for four completions in a span of six plays.

Part of Maryland's problem is that the cornerback reserves languished in recent seasons, as A. J. Johnson was a four-year starter and Chad Scott was solid enough to be drafted in the first round by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Their backups got scant playing time.

The secondary's confidence was rocked in week two when Florida State threw for 461 yards. North Carolina then went over the top for 347. The Terps closed the gap in wins over Temple and Duke, but they appeared as cautious as ever against West Virginia.

An unanticipated problem has been Maryland's inability to mount a pass rush. The Terps are loaded with veterans up front, but senior end Eric Ogbogu has been the only consistent performer on the line. He's played injured, along with end Eric Hicks and tackle Johnnie Hicks.

"On third down, our problem is bigger than any particular area," Vanderlinden said. "We didn't get any pressure on the West Virginia quarterback. When we blitz, we've got to have a greater sense of urgency. When you don't get that pressure and the secondary is out there man to man, it's feast or famine."

NOTES: The ACC has moved the start of the Oct. 25 homecoming game against Clemson to 3: 30 p.m. It will be an ABC regional telecast. Maryland has allowed more points than any other team in the ACC, but that average of 28.8 per game should come down as the Terps put more distance between themselves and the blowouts by No. 3 Florida State and No. 4 North Carolina. The four teams that have beaten the Terps are a combined 21-2. Ogbogu left the West Virginia game with a sprained ankle, and his status is day to day. Tailback Brian Underwood bruised a thigh in the pre-game warmup, didn't play, but will not be able to return for Wake Forest. Vanderlinden estimated that he used freshman LaMont Jordan and senior Buddy Rodgers in a split backfield out of the shotgun 15 times against West Virginia.

Pub Date: 10/14/97

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