October 10, 2006
COLLEGE PARK -- When Ralph Friedgen took over as the head coach at Maryland in 2001, he found a team that didn't know how to win.
Friedgen taught that squad the importance of not beating itself with penalties, mistakes and turnovers. He harped on the necessity of having confidence and mental toughness on the field.
Those Terrapins were hungry for success and showed a lot of sheer determination and willpower in posting a 10-2 record and winning the ACC championship.
Maryland had basically the same talent that finished 5-6 in 1999 and 2000, but the Terps suddenly learned how to win. In compiling a 31-8 record and qualifying for three major bowl games from 2001-03, they seemed to always come up big in the crucial situations and find a way to win the close games.
Now in his sixth season at Maryland, Friedgen finds himself back at square one. After back-to-back 5-6 campaigns, the coach again has a program filled with players who don't know how to win.
Friedgen recognizes that fact, as evidenced by his preseason comments about the importance of playing with a positive attitude, confidence and mental toughness. He talked repeatedly about the fact that Maryland was unable to make plays at crucial times when games hung in the balance in 2004 and 2005.
"We have a lot of kids who haven't been successful, so there is a question mark in their minds. How good are we, or how good can we be?" Friedgen said. "What needs to happen is that you have to start seeing results on the field, and that's why I keep telling them we've got to prepare for the moment, the moment when you are going to give in or you are going to fight through.
"That's where mental toughness comes in, and if you can fight through and win that moment, then you gain the confidence as an individual and a team to be successful. You fail in that moment, and you don't have confidence you can get it done. You have some doubt.
"My question to this team is this: When that moment comes, will we be able to answer the bell?"
Friedgen got an answer to that question in early October, at Georgia Tech, and it wasn't the one he was seeking. The Terps had control of the contest and seemed on the verge of upsetting the No. 18 Yellow Jackets, but they allowed a big victory to slip from their grasp.
It was an opportunity for a struggling program to gain confidence and belief. Beating a ranked team on the road would have been a huge step forward in the Terps' attempt to regain respectability.
Maryland led Tech 23-14 going into the fourth quarter. But the Terps simply could not make defining plays on either side of the ball, and they were outscored 13-0 in the final 15 minutes. Friedgen was visibly upset afterward and very short in his comments to the media.
"It hurts a lot," Friedgen said. "I thought our kids played hard as hell. We just can't get over this hump. We've got the thing right there. You can work your (butt) off 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but when the play is there and you can't make it, it ain't gonna happen. I am very disappointed right now. I think we let this one get away when we shouldn't have."
The Terps had plenty of opportunities to step up and seize the day down the stretch but squandered all of them. Worse yet, Maryland committed the types of costly mistakes that have become all too common and so costly over the last three seasons.
"We haven't answered the moment yet," Friedgen said. "There comes a time when you've got to step up and win that moment. We didn't win it when we had to have it, and that would have won the game for us. It's the same thing as last year. We didn't get the job done when we had to have it."
MANY VETERANS MAKING MISTAKES
After Georgia Tech scored to get within 23-21 early in the fourth quarter, Maryland desperately needed to mount a time-consuming drive. Scoring points would have been nice, but simply salting away some clock was more important.
Maryland did neither. Junior tailback Lance Ball fumbled at his own 17-yard line on the first play of the ensuing possession. Ball, a second-team All-ACC selection in 2005, knows the importance of ball security in such situations.
Good teams mount a strong defensive stand and force a field goal at such crucial moments. Instead, the Terps' front seven collapsed and allowed Tech tailback Tashard Choice to tear through them for a 15-yard TD run.
Maryland still had plenty of time to overcome the 27-23 deficit, but that is when senior quarterback Sam Hollenbach faltered. He had talked throughout the preseason about eliminating silly mistakes, making better decisions and cutting down on turnovers. However, in his first big chance to show he was different, Hollenbach reverted to his 2005 form.
First, Hollenbach made a bad read and threw an interception at the 42-yard line. The Terps needed two yards to keep alive a drive that could have produced a go-ahead score, but Hollenbach did not see receiver Danny Oquendo open in the flat and made a bad throw to Darrius Heyward-Bey instead.
To its credit, Maryland made a defensive stop to give the offense one more chance. Heyward-Bey, who is emerging as the team's go-to receiver and a real playmaker, put the Terps in position with a spectacular 57-yard catch and run. The speedy redshirt freshman shook a defender with a spin move and raced all the way to Tech's seven-yard line.
Good teams punch it in from there, usually with a few power runs. Instead, Maryland's offensive line folded, failing to get any push on a pair of running plays, then getting beat for a pair of sacks.
Ball had no openings and gained just two yards on first- and second-down carries. On third down, Tech end Michael Johnson beat tackle Stephon Heyer and drilled Hollenbach, who compounded the sack by chucking the ball and getting called for intentional grounding.
"You just can't hold the ball, throw the ball away on third down, we went over that in the huddle," Friedgen said. "Third down, don't take a sack, throw the ball away."
Johnson beat Heyer again on fourth down, and Maryland's comeback hopes ended with Hollenbach again lying flat on his back. A line that hasn't come close to living up to preseason expectations allowed five sacks in the game.
There is no greater defining moment in football than third down. Maryland was a woeful 4-of-13 on third-down conversions, while Tech went 8-of-14.
"When it came time for the big play, we just didn't produce," Maryland middle linebacker Wesley Jefferson said. "It was a great effort. We were winning the game and we had to come up big, and we didn't come up big. We just didn't execute what we were supposed to do. We're close right now, but we've got to get that killer instinct."