September 13, 2006
COLLEGE PARK -- For a program coming off two straight losing seasons, a couple of patsies to begin the 2006 campaign made sense.
Ralph Friedgen has said repeatedly that Maryland needs to rebuild its confidence and regain its swagger. Chemistry, cohesiveness and a more positive attitude could make the difference in close games, the coach said.
Enter Division I-AA William & Mary and Middle Tennessee State, which consistently has been ranked among the worst teams in Division I-A.
Relatively easy home victories got the Terrapins off to a 2-0 start, and one-third of the way to the six wins needed to become bowl-eligible. However, there was little about the team's performance in either game to give fans confidence that Maryland can handle the heavyweights on the schedule.
In fact, Friedgen readily admitted that Maryland needed to play much better in order to beat top- 10 West Virginia in a nationally televised Thursday contest. It may prove the toughest matchup of the entire season, and it certainly will give the Terps an early gauge of whether they've truly improved since 2005.
"We've got go up there and raise our game, no doubt," Friedgen said. "Right now, a lot of people don't think we can be in the same park, because they'll compare the scores and statistics. We'll see."
Friedgen and athletic director Debbie Yow did a good job of massaging the schedule with the addition of Florida International, another member of the weak Sun Belt Conference. That figures to be another easy win, one that would put the Terps halfway to a postseason berth.
However, looming on the horizon is the ACC portion of the schedule, which features five teams -- Boston College, Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech and Miami -- the Terrapins probably will not be favored to defeat.
Turnovers and a porous pass defense were among the concerns that came out of the initial two contests. Maryland committed four turnovers against William & Mary and another against MTSU. Thanks to a poor pass rush and loose coverage, the Terrapins allowed 442 yards passing in the two games.
"We've got to do better on third down. We've got to get to where we're not playing timid, we're playing aggressively," Friedgen said of the pass defense. "It seems like (defensively) we're playing on eggshells. We can play harder and more physical."
Lackluster would be the best way to describe both victories. Maryland played just well enough to win against weak competition, but not nearly well enough to beat a high-caliber opponent.
RUNNING GAME LOOKS IMPROVED
From an offensive standpoint, Maryland did not show much against William & Mary or MTSU. Friedgen purposefully did not open the playbook, keeping it simple so as not to reveal much to future opponents.
"We've only used a very small percentage of the overall package," Maryland quarterback Sam Hollenbach said. "There's a ton of plays and formations we haven't pulled out. No need to let West Virginia or any other team know what we want to do."
Serving as his own offensive coordinator this season, Friedgen was content to pretty much play smash-mouth football. He stuck with the power running game, with some play-action passes mixed in.
There are indications that the running game will be much improved, as tailbacks Keon Lattimore, Lance Ball and Josh Allen all found plenty of room to operate behind a veteran line.
One of the more positive developments during preseason was the vastly improved performance of fullback Tim Cesa, who has become a force as a lead blocker. A converted linebacker who has gained 15 pounds (to 256) since 2005, Cesa is a strong and physical sort who plays with toughness and attitude. Maryland enjoyed success running straight isolation plays, with Cesa leading the tailback into the hole and blowing up linebackers.
"Cesa has developed into a very effective fullback," Friedgen said. "I think he gives us an added dimension this season, a more hard-nosed approach in the running game."
Friedgen and first-year backfield coach Phil Zacharias also have been impressed with fullback Cory Jackson, a true freshman nicknamed "The Hammer" for his desire to drill defenders.
Largely overlooked by the mainstream media during August camp was the steady emergence of Lattimore, a junior out of Baltimore and a younger brother of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.
Friedgen singled out Lattimore for plaudits throughout the preseason, but beat writers nonetheless were a bit surprised when he was named the starter over Ball. The 5-11, 221-pound Lattimore then backed up that decision, rushing for a career-high 89 yards versus William & Mary, then 86 against MTSU.
Lattimore, who underwent surgery on both shoulders during the offseason, is the team's fastest tailback, with a 40-yard dash time in the high 4.4s. He also possesses impressive strength and quickness. He is the one tailback on the team with the ability to break tackles and make defenders miss.
Friedgen said Lattimore, who showed flashes early last season then faded, is more focused in terms of preparation and approach. H also has stopped "dancing" so much and become more of a north-south runner.
Ball also looked good early, gaining 144 yards through two games. He is a different style runner than Lattimore, and Friedgen seems to like the change of pace the one-two punch provides.
"It's a good rotation with those three guys. They are different in size, speed and technique, but they all can get the job done," said guard Andrew Crummey, including third stringer Allen in the discussion. "Lance likes to run hard up the middle, while Keon and Josh prefer to operate in space, but it doesn't matter who is back there because we don't have to change up our blocking."
While it was hard to judge too much, since William & Mary and MTSU were undersized along the defensive front, it appears that Maryland's offensive line will be a strength this season. Tackle Stephon Heyer has regained his form from 2004 and is teaming with sophomore Jared Gaither to control the outside, while Crummey and fellow guard Donnie Woods are blocking well inside. As a whole, the line got tremendous push and opened up plenty of big holes in the initial two outings.