October 23, 2007
COLLEGE PARK In the week prior to the Virginia game, the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post wrote stories about Maryland's inability to protect big early leads.
It was the type of big-picture topic not often addressed in the mainstream media and held possibilities for some very insightful analysis.
Unfortunately, neither story addressed any of the hard issues or asked any of the tough questions. Basically, both articles detailed how the Terrapins had blown double-digit leads in four games up to that point and were filled with flimsy quotes from coaches and players.
Coach Ralph Friedgen was asked to explain why Maryland had been consistently outscored in the second half.
"I don't know. I'd have to look at that. I think some of it is we get a lead and kind of relax. We lose our focus. I don't know. I can't really put my finger on that," said Friedgen, who also talked about a lack of consistency and inability to sustain a high level of play through four quarters.
Quarterback Chris Turner also suggested a tendency for the team to relax after grabbing a big lead, while safety Christian Varner said a lack of maturity has prevented the Terps from putting opponents away.
Inconsistency and immaturity are not the real reasons why Maryland has shown a maddening tendency to fade in the second half this season. It all comes down to conservative coaching on both sides of the ball.
Friedgen clearly has taken a play-not-to-lose philosophy, perhaps because of reservations about his own personnel, and it's absolutely killing the Terps.
Maryland blew another big lead against Virginia, and this time it proved costly. The Cavaliers dominated the final three quarters and rallied from an 11-point deficit for an 18-17 victory that was devastating for the Terps.
As it has for most of this season, Maryland came out in the first quarter with purpose and intensity, driving the ball down Virginia's throat and building a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter. Then the Terps followed their season-long trend of going into a shell and spending the rest of the game trying to protect the lead instead of increase it.
Some of the blame for that approach lies on the shoulders of the coaching staff, beginning with Friedgen. As soon as Maryland grabs the lead, he grows conservative in his play calling. As a result, the Terrapins manage few sustained drives, repeatedly put their defense back on the field with minimal rest, and basically allow momentum to steadily shift to the other side.
Maryland mounted touchdown drives of 69 and 53 yards on two of its initial three possessions against Virginia. The Terrapins produced just one lengthy drive for the rest of the game, a 53-yard march that resulted in a field goal by Obi Egekeze.
For most of the final three quarters, Maryland's offense consisted of a steady diet of tailbacks Keon Lattimore and Lance Ball running off tackle or sweep plays. The Terps took absolutely no shots downfield, as Turner did not attempt to throw a pass longer than 15 yards.
To be blunt, Maryland's play calling increasingly became unimaginative and predictable. Friedgen, lauded throughout his career as an innovative coordinator, just will not try anything unique or creative.
It's a similar story on defense, where Maryland is following a bend-but-don't-break philosophy. Coordinator Chris Cosh is not attacking, preferring to drop six or seven men into coverage to prevent the big play.
Perhaps there are valid reasons for Maryland's conservative gameplan. Friedgen may be reluctant to throw the ball deep because he knows the team's patchwork line cannot protect Turner long enough. Cosh could be unwilling to blitz because he just doesn't have quality pass rushers or is afraid to leave his defensive backs in one-on-one coverage.
If that's the case, it reeks of a defeatist attitude and again points to a play-not-to-lose philosophy. Sometimes you have to roll the dice and take a chance at various points in a game. This type of afraid-to-lose mentality tends to pervade a program and infiltrate the players, who get the subtle message that the coaching staff doesn't trust them to make plays.
Maryland's current approach was summed up by one crucial decision in the fourth quarter of the Virginia game. Faced with fourth-and-one situation at the Virginia 44-yard line with less than eight minutes remaining, Friedgen opted to punt. The Cavaliers took over at their own 10-yard line and proceeded to mount a 15-play, 90-yard drive that consumed more than seven minutes of clock.
Hindsight is 20-20, but the winning mentality would be to go for it and try to clinch the game. Any football team that cannot gain one yard with the game on the line does not deserve to win. In addition, why put the game in the hands of a defense that had been on the field for most of the second half and clearly was wearing down?
OFFENSIVE LINE IN TROUBLE
Maryland quickly is running out of answers along the offensive line, which has been decimated by graduation, injury and attrition.
Starting left guard Jaimie Thomas suffered a broken fibula against Virginia and will be lost for the season. That is the same injury that felled starting left guard Andrew Crummey in the previous game against Georgia Tech.
Redshirt sophomore Phil Costa replaced Crummey, while junior Jack Griffin filled in for Thomas. No matter how you slice it, the Terps have endured a major downgrade at both guard spots, and it showed in the loss to Virginia.
UVa defensive end Chris Long absolutely abused the left side of the Maryland line. He piled up 10 tackles, including 3.5 for loss, while working against Costa and tackle Scott Burley. Long repeatedly blew past the pair with ease, as he recorded two sacks and batted down two passes.
Maryland cannot afford any more injuries along the line, or it's going to get even uglier. The Terrapins are now down to a bunch of walk-ons and true freshmen, none of whom is ready for prime time.
"We've got five offensive linemen right now. That's it," Friedgen said after the Virginia loss. "I have to find someone that can come up and help. There's a lot of walk-ons and young freshmen who aren't ready to play yet. It is what it is. I told our players they have been down this road before. Their character will be tested."
Remember that Maryland is without several offensive linemen who could or should be on the team this season. Starting tackle Jared Gaither failed out of school and now is playing for the NFL's Baltimore Ravens. Starting guard Donnie Woods elected to graduate early rather than return for a fifth season of eligibility. Needing to free up scholarship space, Friedgen prodded guard Garrick Clig to graduate and give up his final year of eligibility as well, a decision the head coach may regret now.
Up next in the rotation at guard are walk-ons Paul Pinegar and Matt Harraka. An injury to center Edwin Williams would force line coach Tom Brattan to either shift Costa or use another walk-on, Danny Edwards.
Burley already is nursing an elbow injury. If either Burley or right tackle Dane Randolph went down, true freshman Bruce Campbell would be forced into the lineup. Campbell, a monster at 6-7 and 285 pounds, already has burned his redshirt year after playing in the season opener.
Maryland has a promising group of true freshman linemen, such as Tyler Bowen (6-8, 310), Maurice Hampton (6-5, 295), Bearthur Johnson (6-7, 350), Stephen St. John (6-6, 285) and Lamar Young (6-4, 285). All have bad weight and need to transform fat into muscle and are very raw in terms of technique.
It will be interesting to see if Friedgen bites the bullet and uses one of the other true freshmen this season. He may not have much choice.