The University of Maryland football team is learning how to win, and realizing that winning doesn’t have to be pretty – although sprinkling in a few electrifying, spectacular plays doesn’t hurt.
From their redshirt freshman quarterback, who managed the game like a crafty left-handed pitcher and led his team to a 21-16 victory Saturday at home against a dangerous Duke team even though he didn’t his best “stuff,” to a bend-but-don’t break defense that seems to show up just in the nick of time to an amazing special-teams unit that has proven that they can be the difference, the Terps sem to be figuring it out.
Maryland is 4-1 after knocking off the Blue Devils, and although the wins haven’t come against nationally ranked powerhouses, three of the victories have come vs. solid, well-coached programs in Navy, Florida International and Duke. In the process Maryland has doubled its win total from a year ago and gained enough confidence to be more than competitive as the meat of its Atlantic Coast Conference schedule approaches.
“It wasn’t pretty, but a win is a win,” Terp coach Ralph Friedgen said. “I told our team you have to win some when you’re not working on all cylinders and biorhythms are not right. You just have to reach down and find a way to win. I think that’s what we did tonight. I think Duke is a very good offensive football team, and I thought they played very well on defense. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Dave Cutcliffe, and I knew that team would be ready to play.”
Ready to play they were, running up more than 200 yards of offense and controlling the ball the majority of the first half. At times it looked as though the Blue Devils had six or seven receivers on the field – an issue that has plagued Maryland at times this season – but the Terps stepped up four times to keep Duke’s high-wire offense out of the end zone. Three of those stops resulted in field goals, but the fourth – an interception by Antwine Perez on the goal line – was a momentum-changer.
“I just tried to force it in there,” Duke quarterback Sean Renfree said of his eighth interception of the year.
After the pick by Perez, who played his best game in a Maryland uniform, the Terps drove 80 yards for a touchdown, capped by Davin Meggett’s 3-yard run late in the first half. Prior to that drive the Terps had managed just 66 yards in the contest’s opening 22 minutes against a defense that had allowed nearly 500 yards per game coming in – certainly cause for concern.
But part of the process of learning how to win is figuring out how to come out on top when the opposing team surprises you or plays better than advertised. Maryland’s defense kept the Terps in the game long enough for the rest of the squad to figure it out.
For the second week in a row, Tony Logan, the nation’s top returner, turned the game on its ear with a scintillating return for a touchdown. This week’s head-turner was an 84-yard return in which three Duke players appeared to have him lined up only to be left grasping at air.
That made the score 14-9 and set up a veteran play by a rookie quarterback, who often looked his age, but stepped up when it counted. Searching downfield early in the fourth quarter for an open receiver and moving around in an unsettled pocket, Maryland’s Danny O’Brien checked down to his safety valve, running back Da’rel Scott, in the left flat. Scott caught the ball, juked two Blue Devil defenders and streaked 71 yards for what turned out to be the clinching score.
“Offensively I thought that we missed a lot of plays that were there,” Friedgen said. “Either we dropped it or didn’t throw it. On that play Da’rel was like Danny’s fourth option. Da’rel made a play, made a couple of guys miss and got it in the end zone.”
O’Brien finished the day just 9-for-26 for 170 yards, but he didn’t turn the ball over and made good decisions when it counted. The good news is that O’Brien has gained valuable experience as the starter the past two weeks, allowing Jamarr Robinson, who had been the starter, to heal without losing games.
That should give Maryland a difficult-to-defend two-headed monster at QB in the second half of the season. Robinson is more of a running threat, while O’Brien is more of a pure, drop-back passer.
Duke didn’t go quietly, however, as the Blue Devils somehow managed a 40-yard pass to the Terps’ 1-yard line on a 4th-and-19 play, leading to a 2-yard TD pass that cut the margin to five.
While that type of play also is cause for concern for the Maryland defense going forward, the Terps came up big on Duke’s final possession, with all-everything linebacker Alex Wujciak, the nation’s leading tackler, getting a hand on Renfree’s fourth-down pass and Perez jarring the ball free from the receiver, allowing the Terp offense to run out the clock.
“That one drive they had was about it for the second half. I thought [defensive coordinator Don Brown] got Kenny Tate involved in rushing the passer. I don’t know how many times we should have had more sacks, but I thought [Tate] did the best job I’ve ever seen him do rushing the passer. That’s how he is at practice. At games he always seems to be much more cautious, but he was turning it loose tonight.”
The final piece in learning how to win is closing the game out, and Maryland did just that Saturday. Needing one first down to run out the clock, the Terps turned to Meggett, the bigger of their two running backs, and he came through.
“We had to make a first down to win the game, and that’s a positive,” Friedgen said. “We haven’t been doing that. To me another mark of a good team is when you have to run the football to win the game and you can do it. That gives you a chance. We haven’t been able to do that, and it puts a lot of pressure on our defense.”
Fortunately, the big-play Terps also have found ways to take some of that pressure off.
“We won ugly on offense,” O’Brien said, but at the end of the day we are 1-0 in the ACC. “We are going in to the bye week to get ready for Clemson and keep it going.”
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Written by Scott Lowe