THE CHAMPS SPORTS BOWL:
Maryland (8-4) vs. Purdue (8-5), Dec. 29, 8 p.m., ESPN
By David Glenn
December 21, 2006
COLLEGE PARK A surprising 8-4 record and a berth in the Champs Sports Bowl should not mask the fact that Maryland's football program still has significant room for improvement.
The team made tremendous strides this season, rebounding from back-to-back 5-6 campaigns. Minimizing mistakes on offense and managing big plays/stops on defense enabled the Terrapins to get back into the bowl cycle.
Sixth-year coach Ralph Friedgen said the key to the turnaround involved attitude and confidence. As the season went along, the Terps learned how to win and began to believe in themselves.
"I always thought that all this team needed was to see some success. I felt if that happened, it would begin to grow and develop," Friedgen said. "I think there's a confidence building within this team that only comes through winning."
The turning point of the season came when Maryland rallied from a 20-0 deficit to defeat rival Virginia 28-26. By showing heart and battling back on the road, the Terps showed they were not the same team that had folded so often in the previous two seasons.
Friedgen believes that the way Maryland won that game set the stage for narrow victories over N.C. State, Florida State, Clemson and Miami. Unlike in 2004 and 2005, the Terps exhibited the intangibles and captured the key moments that so often determine the outcomes of close games.
Maryland's five-game winning streak against ACC opponents was a testament to toughness, grit and determination. The Terps were out-gained in all five games, with each decided by six points or fewer.
Maryland turned two consecutive turnovers into touchdowns during the third quarter to key a 26-20 victory over N.C. State, sophomore defensive end Jeremy Navarre blocked a field goal with 42 seconds left to seal a 17-14 defeat of FSU, and kicker Dan Ennis made a 31-yard field goal as time expired to pull out a 13-12 win at Clemson.
"I must be living a good life. I don't know how else to describe it, other than miraculous. I'm lucky I'm a guy of faith, because we got some breaks tonight," Friedgen said after Maryland made several huge defensive stands to nip Miami 14-13. "The ball is bouncing our way right now, but there was a period (2004-05) when it wasn't bouncing our way. Maybe I need to go to Vegas."
Maryland's three-game improvement in the win column largely was attributable to better quarterback play. In his second full season as the starter, senior Sam Hollenbach cut down on his interceptions, fumbles and sacks. He made better checks, reads and decisions. He executed in crucial situations and generally managed the game better.
Friedgen showed some wisdom by emphasizing the running game more this season and limiting what Hollenbach had to do in the passing game. Tailbacks Lance Ball and Keon Lattimore combined for 1,375 yards and 11 touchdowns, while operating behind a veteran line. Hollenbach completed 61 percent of his passes for 2,148 yards and 13 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions.
That Maryland enjoyed any success throwing the ball was somewhat amazing, considering its inexperience and lack of depth at the wide receiver position. Senior Drew Weatherly sat out almost the entire season with an injury, basically leaving the Terps with sophomores Isaiah Williams and Danny Oquendo and redshirt freshman Darrius Heyward-Bey.
Heyward-Bey, a sleek 6-2, 206-pounder with sprinter's speed, had a break-out campaign. He had 41 receptions for 613 yards and four touchdowns, earning second-team All-ACC and freshman All-American honors.
Maryland actually scored more points (270-260) and accumulated more yardage (4,223-3,651) in 2005 than it did in 2006. The Terps also were worse in time of possession (30:06-28:48).
The biggest difference was that Maryland won the turnover battle during that decisive five-game winning streak. The Terps committed seven of their 23 turnovers in end-of-season losses to Boston College and Wake Forest.
"I've been saying all along, the best way to win is to not beat yourself," Friedgen said. "When we didn't commit mistakes or turnovers on offense, we were a pretty good team. In those last two games, we reverted to what we'd been doing (in 2004-05), and it was like death."
Maryland figures to field a solid rushing attack again next season, as Ball and Lattimore return along with four starters on the line. Dane Randolph performed well while seeing extensive action as a backup tackle this season and should step seamlessly into the spot being vacated by senior Stephon Heyer.
Things are more sketchy in the passing department, as the Terps will employ a first-year starter at quarterback in 2007. Redshirt sophomore Jordan Steffy likely will battle classmate Josh Portis for the starting job, and there no doubt will be growing pains along the way. Most observers give the edge to Portis, a Florida transfer who has performed spectacularly at times in practice.
Maryland will return seven of 12 starters and every backup from a defense that did a good job of playing bend-but-don't-break in 2006. Linebackers Erin Henderson and Wesley Jefferson, who ranked among the ACC leaders with 110 and 107 tackles, respectively, return to anchor the unit.
First-year coordinator Chris Cosh did a solid job of developing a defense that stiffened in the red zone and seemed to come up with a turnover or tackle for loss at the most opportune times. However, there remains some concern with Cosh's system, which allowed 23 points and 366 yards per game.
There is no question that Friedgen is a valuable coach. "The Fridge" has proven he knows how to run a solid program in all areas, and the Terps have made improvement in almost every key department facilities, attendance, on-field performance, etc. during his six-year tenure.
Maryland clearly needs to improve its local recruiting connections, which have suffered since the departures of popular assistants Mike Locksley and James Franklin. The team may be on the way to being beaten badly on the home turf for the second straight year, as none of the 15 top-ranked prospects in the Maryland-D.C. region is committed to the Terps.
Friedgen is hopeful that a bowl victory will end the resurgent 2006 campaign on a positive note, while giving the program momentum going into the offseason.
"We really had a very good season, and obviously it would be better with a bowl win. We were very close to having something special, and that was really my goal," said Friedgen, alluding to the two-game losing streak to close the regular season. "The way this team matured, the games they won, and the way they won hopefully, we learned how to win again."
DT Conrad Bolston, PK Dan Ennis, LT Stephon Heyer, QB Sam Hollenbach, LB David Holloway, P Adam Podlesh, CB/KR Josh Wilson, SS Marcus Wimbush
RB Josh Allen, WR Drew Weatherly
2007 Returning Starters^
Pos. Name Ht./Wt. 2007 Class
RB Lance Ball 5-9/216 Sr.
FB Tim Cesa 6-1/256 Sr.
WR Darrius Heyward-Bey 6-2/206 So.
WR Isaiah Williams 6-2/200 Jr.
TE Dan Gronkowski 6-6/266 Jr.
LG Donnie Woods 6-3/289 Sr.
OC Edwin Williams 6-2/318 Jr.
RG Andrew Crummey 6-5/301 *Sr.
RT Jared Gaither 6-9/350 Jr.
DE Jeremy Navarre 6-3/263 Jr.
NT Carlos Feliciano 6-5/307 Sr.
DT Dre Moore 6-4/312 Sr.
DE Trey Covington 6-3/252 Jr.
LB Erin Henderson 6-3/242 Jr.
LB Wesley Jefferson 6-2/233 Sr.
FS Christian Varner 5-11/196 Sr.
CB Isaiah Gardner 5-11/194 *Sr.
Special Teams (0)
- has utilized redshirt season
^ six/more 2006 regular-season starts
Other Tested Returnees
OG Garrick Clig, TE Jason Goode, TE Joey Haynos (2006 co-starter), FB Cory Jackson, RB Keon Lattimore, DS Brendan McDermond (FG/PAT), WR/PR Danny Oquendo, OT Dane Randolph, DS Andrew Schmitt (punts), QB Jordan Steffy, OG Jaimie Thomas
SS Jeff Allen, CB Kevin Barnes, LB Rick Costa, KO Obi Egekeze, DE Mack Frost, LB Moses Fokou, FS J.J. Justice, LB Dave Philistin
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1997 1-7 (8) 2-9 None
1998 1-7 (8) 3-8 None
1999 2-6 (8) 5-6 None
2000 3-5 (6) 5-6 None
2001 7-1 (1) 10-2 Orange Bowl (L)
2002 6-2 (2) 11-3 Peach Bowl (W)
2003 6-2 (2) 10-3 Gator Bowl (W)
2004 3-5 (8) 5-6 None
2005 3-5 (4A) 5-6 None
2006 5-3 (2A) 8-4 Champs Sports Bowl
ACC: 37-43 (.463)
Overall: 64-53 (.547)
Team 2006 Record^
Boston College 9-3 (5-3)
Clemson 8-4 (5-3)
Georgia Tech 9-4 (7-1)
Virginia 5-7 (4-4)
West Virginia 10-2 (5-2)
Florida State 6-6 (3-5)
North Carolina 3-9 (2-6)
N.C. State 3-9 (2-6)
Wake Forest 11-2 (6-2)
Florida International 0-12 (0-7)
Rutgers 10-2 (5-2)
^ regular season only (conference)
NOTE: Finalized dates/times TBA.