Maryland overcame another season of adversity to reach its first bowl under Randy Edsall.
COLLEGE PARK – It was another long, hard, difficult season for the Maryland football team, except this time there was a happy ending.
Say what you will about head coach Randy Edsall, but he certainly hasn’t had it easy in College Park. In 2012, Maryland was the victim of an unprecedented series of injuries to its top four quarterbacks, forcing Edsall to start a true freshman linebacker - who had played the position in high school – under center in the last couple games.
It was more of the same this season, as the Terrapins were absolutely decimated by injuries. All college football teams lose players, but you would be hard-pressed to find any program that has seen more key players suffer season-ending injuries than Maryland. By late October, a total of 10 players listed as starters on the preseason depth chart were unavailable.
By far the biggest blow came on Oct. 19 during a 34-10 loss at Wake Forest when starting wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long both suffered broken legs. Those two game-breakers, both of whom are considered NFL prospects, had combined for 66 receptions totaling 1,076 yards through seven games and were a big reason for the early optimism surrounding the Terps, who started the season 4-0.
Maryland entered the Wake game without five defensive starters – cornerbacks Jeremiah Johnson (fractured toe) and Dexter McDougle (shoulder surgery) along with linebackers Matt Robinson (collarbone), Alex Twine (labrum) and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil (torn pec). McDougle led the team with three interceptions at the time of his season-ending injury while Cudjoe-Virgil was second on the squad in sacks when he was lost for the remainder of 2013.
As if the injuries weren’t enough, Maryland also had its top offensive tackle, sophomore Mike Madaras, abruptly quit football on Oct. 28. Madaras, a consensus high school All-American with definite NFL potential, told reporters, “My heart is not in the game of football or going to college at this time.”
Madaras, who was forced into the starting lineup as a true freshman because of injury and performed well, said in a statement, “I did not think it was fair to my teammates to be out there playing when I didn’t share their passion for the game.”
There was no indication the 6-5, 295-pound sophomore simply wanted to take a sabbatical and might rejoin the program at a later date.
Edsall was forced to start true freshman Moise Larose at left tackle in place of Madaras. In keeping with the team’s misfortune, Larose promptly suffered a foot injury, forcing further shuffling of the offensive line and a third starting left tackle in as many games.
A bowl berth seemed almost certain after Maryland edged border rival Virginia, 27-26, on Oct. 12 to improve to 5-1. However, the disastrous day in Winston-Salem began a three-game losing streak that put the program’s postseason hopes in serious doubt.
An embarrassing 20-3 home loss to Syracuse that featured four fumbles, a slew of dropped passes and an empty Byrd Stadium by the end was the definite low point. Starting quarterback C.J. Brown, who had missed two of the three previous games with various injuries, clearly was not himself in tossing two interceptions and committing one of two fumbles.
It certainly seemed as though Maryland was going through its typical late-season collapse with beat writers pointing out the program owned an 0-16 record in games after Oct. 13 since 2011. At that point, it was hard for anyone to imagine the Terps winning another game.
Miraculously, Maryland turned around the following week and upset Virginia Tech, 27-24 in overtime. Brown, fairly healthy for the first time since early in the season, looked like his old self in rushing for 123 yards and two touchdowns. It was the first win in Blacksburg since 1949 for the Terps and first overall against the Hokies since 1990.
It was also one of the unlikeliest, most improbable results of the ACC campaign and made Maryland bowl eligible for the first time under Edsall. Having endured criticism from fans and media and suffered more bad luck than any head coach deserves, Edsall celebrated like a teenager afterward – pumping his fist, hugging players and smiling broadly.
“They had a resolve this week that they wanted to change things around,” Edsall said. “Things weren’t going the way we wanted, and all credit goes to the players for coming down here and getting it fixed.”
“It’s huge to get that monkey off our back,” Brown said. “With all the adverse times we’ve gone through as a team, to get a win on the road against a good team says a lot about our heart and character.”
It appeared the monumental victory at Virginia Tech was just an aberration after Maryland returned home and suffered a disheartening 29-26 loss to Boston College. The Eagles won when kicker Nate Freese booted a 52-yard field goal in the closing seconds. Freese had initially missed the kick wide left, but he got another chance because Edsall had called timeout.
That left Maryland facing the prospect of finishing with a 6-6 record, which could have jeopardized its postseason prospects. The ACC has rules about the bowl pecking order, and there was a chance the Terps could get left out of the party.
Maryland, however, closed the campaign on a positive note with Brown putting forth perhaps the finest performance of his career to lead a 41-21 rout of N.C. State in Raleigh. Brown rushed for 138 yards and three touchdowns, passed for another 259 yards and two scores.
“There was no guarantee we would go to a bowl with six wins. I know we’ll go somewhere with seven,” Edsall said.
Sure enough, Maryland was selected to appear in the Military Bowl, being held Dec. 27 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis. While not exactly sexy, that destination was actually fine with a cash-strapped athletic department that had been exploring ways to reduce costs and avoid losing money if the Terps were sent elsewhere, such as the AdvoCare V100 Bowl in Shreveport, La.
“For us to play in Annapolis will be great,” Edsall said. “We haven’t played at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium since 1965, so this will be kind of nostalgic for long-time Terps fans.
“Being close to home, it allows us to play in front of our recruiting base, makes it easy for our fans and hopefully we’ll have a real homefield advantage.”
Big Names Still On The Board
Edsall also hopes the strong finish helps sway the minds of Maryland’s top remaining recruiting targets, notably Bishop McNamara (Forestville, Md.) offensive tackle Damian Prince and Friendship Collegiate (D.C.) cornerback Jalen Tabor – both of whom are rated as five-star prospects.
Once considered the leader for Tabor, things have gotten tougher for the Terps now that Alabama has picked up its pursuit. Head coach Nick Saban flew to the District of Columbia for an in-home visit with Tabor and his family. Tabor, who has narrowed his choices to Alabama, Arizona, Florida and Maryland, will announce his collegiate destination on Jan. 2 at the Under Armour All-American Game.
Meanwhile, Prince has Maryland among five finalists that include Florida, Florida State, Miami and South Carolina. Prince took an official visit to College Park in early November and had nothing but positive things to say about the Terps, who are so thin on the offensive line that starting a true freshman of that caliber in 2014 would be very likely.
Tabor took his official visit to Maryland the same weekend as Prince and said the two key local targets were treated like royalty by the staff. It would be a real coup for Edsall if he could somehow pull off landing both consensus All-Americans.