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An Absurdly Premature Assessment of: Maryland

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A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the long offseason.
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It’s easy to lose sight of this, since the Terps finished in very familiar, easily-ignorable mediocrity, but if things had proceeded according to script, 2007 could have been the total disaster that began to draw the curtain on the Friedgen era: after a couple nummy cupcake games, Maryland was a favorite in only three of its last ten, and it lost two of those (18-17 to Virginia and 16-13 at North Carolina). In that context, just getting to .500 and a lame bowl game required upsets of Rutgers and Georgia Tech in consecutive weeks at midseason and Boston College in November, and was an achievement in its own way.


Of course, optimistic Maryland fans will probably argue those three games represent the real Terps, waiting to be unleashed to begin their reign of terror over the ACC Atlantic. From the outside, it just looks like a new way to find the middle: after dramatically overachieving to get to nine wins in 2006, Maryland was exactly one game under .500 in ‘07 for the third time in four years and tied with N.C. State for last place in the division. Friedgen’s seat is probably not anywhere near “hot” because of the 10-win seasons from 2001-03, but in terms of wins and losses, the program is much closer now to the state he found it in (off back-to-back 5-6 records under Ron Vanderlinden*) than to his early success.

The least you should know about Maryland...
2007 Record • Past Five Years
2007: 6-7 (3-5 ACC; T-5th/Atlantic)
2003-07: 35-26 (20-20, ACC)
Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*-
2004-08: 17 • 16 • 29 • 35 • 38
Returning Starters, Roughly
14 (9 Offense, 5 Defense)
Best Player
Darrius Heyward-Bey may never break out in this offense, given its limitations in the passing game, but under the right conditions, Heyward-Bey could be one of the handful of elite deep threats in the country. He’s a former track guy, good for one heartstopping moment several steps behind the defender every game; sometimes they hit him, sometimes they don’t: he only hauled in three touchdowns last year. But he’s a good bet for the first or second round next year or in 2010, and if you don’t know, just ask Miami.
In Other News...
Maryland clearly peaked at football in the seventies and first half of the eighties, winning eight games or more 11 years out of 13 between 1973-85 and actually opening the ‘85 season No. 1 by a stray magazine or two. This period also produced all of the best crowds in Lane Stadium history, thanks to temporary bleachers, though it’s telling that the top four draws were all from outside of the ACC: Penn State (1975), West Virginia (1983), Alabama (1974) and Penn State again (1979). For such an old school (founded 1856) surrounding by many other old schools, Maryland seems to lack one essential: a really, desperately hated rival. I guess it’s hard to detest Navy. Now, Johns Hopkins, on the other hand...
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* According to Rivals.


What’s Changed. By ACC standards, Maryland wasn’t very good against the run in general (10th out of 12 teams, though it was just average overall because the ACC was so, uh, defensive-minded), but the run defense was probably the strongest catalyst for the non-gimme games UMD was able to win: the defense held Rutgers to 3.6 per carry, one of the Knights’ worst averages of the season, and Boston College (1.7 per carry) and N.C. State (0.6) to season lows. But then, at the same time, West Virginia, Wake Forest, Virginia, Clemson and Oregon State fairly dominated the line of scrimmage (249 per game on 5.2 per carry) in Terp losses. The difference is that the former three running games tended to be conventional, straight-ahead, back-into-the-line schemes, which Maryland handled pretty well; the attacks the Terps tended to struggle with, on the other hand (with the exception of Virginia), were the ones that relied on speed and getting runners to the outside, in space. 


I’m in no position to critique Maryland’s speed on defense, which would have to be much more terrible than it could possibly be in reality to explain the problem, anyway. But I do know that when I wrote Saturday that Oregon State lacks playmakers on offense, OSU message boards flipped out at the omission of James Rodgers, the argument for whom went something like this:



That specific play was called back on a penalty, but Rodgers had 115 yards on just ten carries in the game, all of them, apparently, on that little speed sweep (you can see several of them here), which fits perfectly with the larger trend of struggling against speed backs. Adding to the potential trouble there is the early exit of the best athlete on the defense, Erin Henderson, who inexplicably plummeted into free agency despite early round projections, and of three-quarters of the secondary, a trio of seniors who had almost 100 consecutive starts between them and finished right behind the linebackers in tackles.


A much bigger concern is the middle of the line, last year’s strength thanks to massive all-ACC tackle Dré Moore, now a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. One of the two guys who rotated alongside him, 315-pound Carlos Feliciano, signed a free agent deal with the Patriots; the other, Jeremy Navarre, is on the lighter side, relatively speaking, at 270 pounds. The linebackers make all the tackles in this defense (the starters have been the top three tacklers the last two years, despite two new starters last year), which becomes much more difficult with offensive lines no longer concerned with – or shielded by – Moore’s very distracting presence inside.


What’s the Same. Two magic numbers: 340, 25. Maryland’s offense hit both of them – 340 yards, 25 points – five times last year, and won all five times (the only other win was against lowly Florida International, with a meager 270 yards). When it failed to hit either number, UMD was 0-7. This is in sharp contrast to 2006, when the Terps won games with no apparent benchmarks or rhyme or reason whatsoever.


The most obvious pattern is the play of afro’d quarterback Chris Turner, whose inconsistency as a first-year starter dovetailed nicely with the team’s at large:


Of all those numbers, the widest and most telling gap is in attempts: 16 passes per win, 25 per loss, even though the losses were all competitive games that didn’t call for a wild, pass-happy comeback effort. Turner is another in a long line of underwhelming, within-the-offense types for Friedgen, guys competent enough as long as they can rely on the running game to set them up and keep them out of trouble. The Terps still want to be in a position to pound away as often as possible, even if it’s not particularly effective – they averaged less than four yards per carry even in the six wins, and were still able to protect Turner and give him the opportunity to pick his spots downfield instead of forcing it. 

As far as quarterback fros go, it beats Donovan McNabb's.
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There should be no change whatsoever to this approach despite the return of the four leading receivers, the graduation of two running backs (Keon Lattimore and Lance Ball) who have handled almost all the carries the last two years and a new playcaller, ex-Kansas State coordinator James Franklin, because a) Fridge is still the boss, b) Turner is still the quarterback (probably; see below) and c) four starters and one heavily-rotated injury replacement are back on the line. And those suckers are, in the words of Microscopic Elvis, huuuuuuuuuuuuge: 316 pounds on average, with two 335-pound seniors, Scott Burley and Jaimie Thomas, on the left side. Scores tend to stay in the teens and low twenties in this conference, which – along with the line’s spotty pass blocking last year (32 sacks allowed in ten games vs. BCS conference defenses) –won’t give Franklin much incentive to get too lib’ral with the passin’. [spit]


Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. Turner started the last eight games, but the job was declared wide open in the spring to give Jordan Steffy and especially ex-hot shot Florida recruit/alleged cheater/unrepentant mama’s boy Josh Portis a chance to add a little pizzazz to the proceedings. Not so much: Portis was a measley 3-6 for nine yards in the spring game, and Friedgen didn’t see anything like “pizzazz”:

"I really need to look at the tape. I didn't think any of them had the day I was hoping for. I'm looking for a factor to separate them and I really can't see that right now. I wish it was that easy but I'm hoping we got one."
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So, if Turner was the top guy going in, and there was no clear separation by the guys trying to catch him, then that must mean...

[Turner]: “...Do I feel like I have momentum? Do I feel like I have a leg up? Sure. But we'll have to see what the reality is."

"Jordan and Josh are Division I quarterbacks, it's not an easy thing to separate myself from those two. All three of us are capable of playing. If I haven't outplayed Jordan and Josh then they haven't outplayed me. It's up to the coaches to make that kind of call."
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That isn’t exactly rock-solid logic – it’s possible Turner hasn’t outplayed Jordan and Josh because they’ve outplayed him – although it works in this specific case, especially since the quarterback will apparently be spending most of his time handing off to Da’Rel Scott, no matter what: the sophomore ran for 116 yards on 16 carries in the spring, more than he had all of last year as a redshirt freshman, and is the heir apparent to the workhorse role.

Maryland on You Tube. The Terps lose the ACC championship to Clemson in 1985 – well, depending on who you ask:



Hey, looks like a catch to Florida fans.

See Also: The Tigers earn a more convincing championship over Maryland in 1988. Listen for Danny Ford at the end (even if he cain’t hear ya). ... Frank Reich brings Maryland back in the Orange Bowl in 1984, then leaves it to the defense to hang on. ... And it’s not football, but I can cross over for Len Bias vs. Michael Jordan in 1984. I’m sure everyone thought this at the time, too, but in hindsight, North Carolina’s lineup is ridiculous.

Friedgen feeds on your doubt. It only makes him hungrier. Mmmmm....crow...
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Best-Case: Turtles in the Grass. Amid the tomato can games with Delaware, Middle Tennessee State and Eastern Michigan is this really interesting home game with Cal, which goes cross-country for the early pivot in both teams’ seasons. For Maryland, even optimistically, it could be the difference in a third straight bowl game and another season lost in the mire: I can see the Terps settling into their ball control game and playing defense against fellow ACC conservatives and winning three league games – say, N.C. State, North Carolina and either Virginia or Boston College, each of which should be falling back to earth – and that’s all they’ll need to get back to .500. The question is whether they can catch Cal with jetlag or something and steal a fourth conference game; if so, it could wind up looking a lot like the skin-of-the-teeth 8-4 effort of 2006.


Worst-Case: And the Bottom Drops Out. It’s impossible to not see UMD starting 3-1, but beyond that, there are no guarantees. Only two of the eight ACC foes on this year’s schedule had equal or worse records than Maryland last year, North Carolina and N.C. State, and both are generally considered upwardly mobile programs under second-year coaches. Maryland has been way too competitive to predict an o-fer, but without more consistency on offense, the disaster it avoided with last year’s upsets could come to fruition in the form of 1-7 in-conference.


Non-Binding Forecast: Middle of the Pack or Bust. I’m pretty down on this bunch. It only has one standout player on offense, Heyward-Bey, and lacks the ability at quarterback and in pass protection to keep him consistently involved as a downfield threat. It only has one standout player on defense, linebacker Dave Philistin, who the pro scouts like, but who has more new faces around him than old, and the old faces haven’t been that great. It’s another outfit that has more going for it in terms of a reputation for competitiveness in the past than it does on paper going forward. 


But the Terps also don’t have very far to go to get back to .500, and have made a habit of eking out wins they objectively shouldn’t (at least one upset win over a ranked team every year of Friedgen’s tenure). They won’t be any kind of factor in the otherwise open Atlantic race, but with three readymade non-conference locks, they’ll probably need just one surprise of that variety to get back to 6-6.


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Speaking of Vanderlinden, Maryland partisans will probably enjoy this article from August 1997, in retrospect.