November 1, 2004 COLLEGE PARK Who could have seen this coming?
Even many of the most optimistic Maryland fans had given up their favorite team for dead this season. An ugly three-game losing streak had sapped the Terrapins' confidence and appeared to ruin any chance of a winning record and bowl berth. Considering the quality of teams remaining on the schedule, it suddenly was not very hard to imagine the Terps finishing 2004 on a seven-game losing streak.
Seven games into the season, the Terps' offense was in shambles, and there was absolutely no indication that it was close to coming together.
With each passing week, it seemed more and more obvious that redshirt sophomore Joel Statham lacked the intangibles and the play-making ability to become a quality ACC quarterback. The line was beat up and lacked chemistry. The receiving corps was simply subpar, unable to get separation and incapable of making big plays. Heck, even normally reliable kicker Nick Novak couldn't make a field goal at times.
And what about offensive masterminds Ralph Friedgen and Charlie Taaffe? Had they suddenly lost their playbooks, the ones with hundreds of innovative plays and formations?
Frankly, a matchup between Maryland's struggling offense and a Florida State defense that had been dominant all season had the makings of a massacre. Even senior slotback Rich Parson admitted that the offensive unit had hit rock-bottom. He said players seemed shell-shocked during the plane ride back from Clemson.
"We were lost," Parson said, "and didn't know how we were going to pick up the pieces by Monday."
So what happened? An anemic offense that had totaled 17 points in the previous three games combined broke out for 20 against mighty FSU. A struggling unit that had averaged 120 yards in the previous three games hammered the talented Seminoles for 387.
Statham, previously lacking confidence and occasionally clueless, fired the ball all over the field in completing 21 of 40 passes for 333 yards. Receivers who had done nothing all season suddenly started getting open and making tough catches. A line that had changed starters virtually every week finally figured out how to pick up a blitz and gave Statham great protection for the entire game.
It was all quite stunning to see. Where did this effort come from? How could an offense that was awful for three weeks miraculously turn the corner and perform like a juggernaut?
There really were no easy answers, except to say that when things start clicking there can be a steamroll effect. Statham finally had time to throw and completed a couple of easy passes early that gave him confidence. Slot receiver Jo Jo Walker and wideout Andrew Weatherly made some tough catches early, and that became contagious.
Weatherly had been brought out of mothballs to replace starter Derrick Fenner, who was limited by an ankle injury. Friedgen gave the highly touted sophomore confidence by saying, "I recruited you because I thought you were the type of receiver I needed to beat Florida State." Walker, one of the speediest, shiftiest players on the team, had been told he would be incorporated more and urged to step up.
Much has been made of Taaffe's play-calling, but it's impossible to get into any sort of rhythm or flow when the team is constantly going three-and-out. Certain plays set up others, and it's tough to get the defense off-balance when you gain only two yards on first down. Maryland finally put together some drives against the Seminoles, and that enabled Taaffe to start mixing it up.
That said, the Terrapins finally ran some plays that all the Sunday morning quarterbacks had been calling for all season. There were quick outs, dump-offs to the tailback, screens, reverses many of the staples of Maryland's offensive package under Friedgen that had been noticeably absent so far this season.
Friedgen admitted recently that perhaps he and Taaffe had made the offense "too simple," in an effort to give their young quarterbacks a chance. Opponents appeared to have no trouble guessing what was coming from an attack that had become quite basic.
Maryland clearly got more aggressive against Florida State, attacking the Seminoles from all angles. Fans were thrilled to see talented H-back Vernon Davis back in the gameplan, as the sophomore had six catches for 99 yards. Walker and Parson were two other playmakers who were utilized more often in the huge upset.
Russell Bonham returned from injury and replaced Andrew Crummey at guard, while Lou Lombardo replaced an injured Brandon Nixon at tackle. Despite the changes, the line finally showed some cohesiveness, although the run blocking remained suspect.
Now the question is whether this was a one-game mirage or a trend. Have Statham and the rest of the Maryland offense turned the corner, or was this just another tease of how things could be? Remember, the Terrapins piled up 55 points and nearly 700 total yards against Duke before going into their shell for three weeks.
Only time will tell, but for weary Maryland fans a long-awaited win over FSU helped take the sting out of a disappointing season. It was truly a monumental victory that showed the program really is continuing to make progress. Maryland hadn't defeated a top-10 team since 1990.
Give Friedgen credit for pushing all the right buttons to get his players to believe that Maryland could beat FSU for the first time in school history. The coach invoked the Boston Red Sox comeback against the New York Yankees, Mississippi State's upset of Florida and other improbable sports stories of recent weeks. He put the players in the right mindset by telling them they had nothing to lose. He told them to go out and just have fun playing football.
Friedgen even hung a "We Believe" poster in the Gossett Team House and told the players they could not sign it until they looked their position coach in the eye and said they truly believed that Maryland would end its 0-14 streak against FSU. Players who made the pledge and signed the poster were then given t-shirts inscribed with the slogan.
That simple poster now will go down in Maryland football folklore. Friedgen plans to have it framed and hung in the entrance lobby of the Gossett Team House for all visitors to see.
Williams Enjoying Depth, Versatility
It already is obvious from preseason scrimmages that Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams has a number of ways he can go with this team's rotation.
The emergence of sophomore swingman Mike Jones, the continued development of sophomore centers Will Bowers and Hassan Fofana, the arrival of junior college guard Sterling Ledbetter and the surprisingly strong play of freshman forward James Gist could make an already-deep roster even deeper.
Williams may have trouble finding everyone playing time in 2004-05, as 12 of the 13 players on the roster are making pretty good cases for important minutes at this early stage. Even seldom-used senior Mike Grinnon has done enough for Williams to feel he deserves a shot to get meaningful time this season.
Maryland's biggest question mark going into the preseason involved finding a replacement for departed center Jamar Smith. It appears at this point that Williams will go with a center-by-committee approach, with skinny sophomore Ekene Ibekwe starting and the Bowers-Fofana duo sharing the backup duties. Matchups and game situations will dictate who plays in the pivot and for how long.
There are myriad other lineup options. Williams could use Caner-Medley at power forward and either Jones or D.J. Strawberry at wing forward. By contrast, he could use Travis Garrison at wing forward, with Ibekwe and Fofana up front.
"We want to be versatile this year," Williams said. "We could play a couple different ways, big or small. We have a lot of ways we can go that would make it hard for teams to defend us."
Ledbetter appears fully recovered from the injuries he sustained in an auto accident in the spring. He has been practicing full-bore, displaying strong ball-handling skills but an inconsistent jumper. Meanwhile, as advertised, Gist has been a real high-flyer, an explosive leaper who has attacked the rim for rebounds and thrown down crowd-pleasing dunks in every intrasquad scrimmage so far.