If you took a poll of random college football fans across the country and asked them who will win this weekend’s Maryland-Florida International game, the vast majority would automatically pick the Terps.
For Maryland supporters, this is one of those games that you see on the schedule and think that maybe that’s one of the weeks you’ll give your tickets to friends.
However, if past history – or the tough losses against quality opponents suffered by FIU the past two weeks – is any indication, both groups of people would be making a big mistake by underestimating the Golden Panthers. And if the Terp players make a similar error in judgment, there is no doubt that FIU is capable of pulling off the upset or making the game uncomfortably close like it did in a 2006 hard-fought 14-10 setback in College Park.
You would think that Maryland has learned its lesson from last year’s loss to Middle Tennessee State and from too-close victories against the likes of Delaware and James Madison in recent seasons. If not, then all the Terps need to do is watch the tapes of FIU’s last two losses, games in which they led Rutgers and Texas A&M in the fourth quarter before ultimately falling.
Maryland, with two gimpy quarterbacks and a beat-up offensive line that is being reshuffled, is coming off a big rivalry game and facing a fast, athletic defense that is ranked among the nation’s leaders in multiple categories. FIU ranks 28th in the country in overall defense, 23rd in turnovers created, ninth in tackles for losses, 12th in sacks, sixth in pass efficiency defense and ninth in interceptions.
Neither the danger surrounding this game for the Terps, nor the talent on the Golden Panther roster has escaped Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen. “Florida International has a very good defense,” he said. “It is a defense that has great speed, which concerns me. And their defense brings a lot of pressure. This is a team that is very hungry and plays very hard and really deserved to win two games it didn’t.
“This is a very, very important game on our schedule,” he continued. “It is very important for us to re-establish our momentum and really focus on whatever we need to do to win this football game.”
FIU has to be pointing to this game as an opportunity to knock off a big-name school from a big-time conference, especially after the last two close calls. The reality is that both teams might be suffering from a crisis of confidence, Maryland after a disappointing performance in a game at nationally ranked West Virginia, and the Golden Panthers after two late-game collapses.
An upgraded Terps’ defense that shut down the Mountaineers for most of the second half (125 total yards allowed) after taking 30 minutes to adjust to their speed, has four linebackers ranked among the top nine tacklers in the Atlantic Coast Conference and ranks 24th in the nation in scoring defense (16.0 ppg). Two-time All-ACC pick Alex Wujciak is second in the country in tackles (13.0 tpg) and the other starting linebackers, Demetrius Hartsfields and Adrian Moten have become big-play defenders. Safety Kenny Tate was named the national defensive player of the week Sept. 6 after his goal-line stop on the last play of the game vs. Navy.
“We have three very good linebackers and very good backups there, too,” Friedgen said. “Linebacker is kind of a strength of our team. We’ve actually moved some of our linebackers to the defensive line because we felt pretty solid there.”
Maryland’s defensive strength, combined with its musical-chair offensive line and a big-play FIU defense should limit the offensive fireworks Saturday at Byrd Stadium in a game that kicks off at noon and will be televised on ESPNU.
With starting left tackle Justin Gilbert out for the season because of an ACL tear, Terp sophomore R.J. Dill will switch sides to start in his place with freshman Pete DeSouza stepping in at right tackle. A young offensive line gets younger as a nationally ranked defense comes to town and with a pair of quarterbacks coming off of injuries to protect. More reasons why Maryland can’t afford to look past FIU.
“Justin was playing very well for us,” Friedgen said. “We have been very pleased with him and how he’s been playing. But, by nature there is concern in losing an offensive lineman and moving in a redshirt freshman. DeSouza has played and has played well. We have situations to place him in. We practiced these situations, and we will just have to make do with the best of our abilities.”
Normally coming off of a tough loss to a rival in which the offense started clicking in the second half and rallied to within seven after falling behind by 28 and the defense stepped up and showed a great deal of pride in keeping the game within reach, you’d expect a team to return home ready to make a statement and prove themselves in front of their own fans. The Terps may have every intention of doing just that, but with so many injuries and a similarly hungry team coming to town, it simply won’t be that easy.
“We have to re-establish ourselves, re-establish our confidence and get our momentum going in the direction we want it to go right now,” Friedgen said. “I talked to our team and told them that our goal is to win the next game. You can’t do anything about West Virginia. That’s done. Let’s focus on Florida International and if there’s ever a time we have to pull together it’s right now. I was very pleased the way we practiced Monday night. It was enthusiastic; I thought there was a renewed sense of energy and an attention to detail, really trying to get things done right. So we’ll see how we do.”
How they do will depend quite a bit on the ability of a young, patchwork line to help re-establish what had been a strong Terp running game before last week and to keep their healing QBs upright. Although many of you may not realize it, that will be quite a challenge against an under-appreciated FIU team
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Written by Scott Lowe