When I was at the Naval Academy, I had a friend who thought that George Welsh was overrated. He didn’t understand how a team could produce so much NFL talent, yet only manage to go 7-4 every year. I can only imagine what he’d think of Ralph Friedgen, who turns out a ton of NFL talent but has had 4 losing seasons in the last 6 years. That wasn’t always the case; the Maryland alum took over at his alma mater in 2001 and promptly led the Terrapins to three straight 10+ win seasons and an ACC title. Friedgen hasn’t been able to maintain that kind of success, though, and the prevailing theme of the Maryland offseason was the embattled coach’s job security. It didn’t help that former Maryland AD Debbie Yow made it known that she expected at least a 7-5 season out of the football team in 2010. Yow has since departed to take the AD job at North Carolina State, but that probably doens’t do much to comfort Friedgen. New athletic directors tend to have itchy trigger fingers; if they’re going to be held accountable for their football program’s success, they’re going to at least have their own hand-picked guy in charge. (Yesterday, it was announced that Maryland hired Army’s Kevin Anderson to replace Yow.)
It’s against this backdrop that Maryland heads into tomorrow’s game against Navy. Coming off of last year’s 2-10 debacle, the Terps are a 6-point underdog to the Mids, which belies the considerable talent that they have on their roster. At 6-3, 250, middle linebacker Alex Wujciak is a monster in the middle, piling up 131 tackles to earn a second all-conference selection. Standout middle linebackers have had some success against the Navy offense; Pitt’s Scott McKillop comes to mind. Fellow linebacker Adrien Moten also returns after leading the team in sacks and tackles for loss a year ago. Up front, nose tackle A.J. Francis was a freshman all-American in 2009. On offense, junior receiver Torrey Smith returns after an all-ACC season where he was 6th in the nation in all-purpose yards. Maryland also has considerable depth at running back, led by Da’Rel Scott. Scott missed most of last year with a broken wrist, but in 2008 he ran for 1,133 yards and was named first-team all-ACC.
Still, 2-10 teams are 2-10 for a reason, and Maryland has their fair share of problems. First and foremost is how to improve an offensive line that gave up 36 sacks last year (110th in the country) and was 105th in the country in rushing offense, only getting 3.1 yards per carry. The defense didn’t fare much better, giving up a horrible 31 points per game and a mediocre 150 yards per game on the ground. Maryland has to improve upon this performance with a team that features only 8 seniors on its offensive and defensive 2-deep roster. That’s no easy task.
Fortunately for Coach Friedgen’s future employment prospects, he has a new tool in his box: quarterback Jamarr Robinson. Robinson played most of the last month of the season and had a few admirable performances, including a 129-yard rushing game against Virginia Tech. With his speed and mobility, Robinson is a throwback to the quarterbacks of Friedgen’s more successful days in College Park. The offensive coordinator in those days was Charlie Taaffe, the former head coach of The Citadel who ran the wishbone both in Charleston and as offensive coordinator for Jim Young at Army. Taaffe wasn’t running the wishbone at Maryland, but with quarterbacks like Shaun Hill and Scott McBrien, he incorporated option elements into his offense. Specifically, he called shotgun zone option plays in one and two-back sets. Nobody would have accused Maryland of being an “option team,” but the quarterback’s mobility and the threat of the option opened up the rest of the offense. It’s something that Maryland has gotten away from in the past few years with more traditional pocket passers like Chris Turner and Sam Hollenbach, but could be making a comeback with Robinson. Zone running and option plays are something that the Navy defense has struggled with, and Maryland looks ready to take advantage of that with Robinson and their depth at running back.
A wildcard in the game is Maryland’s injury problems at tight end. Fall camp was particularly hard on the tight ends, with Devonte Campbell, Lansford Watson, and Notre Dame transfer Will Yeatman all out of the lineup for the Navy game. That leaves sophomore Matt Furstenburg and redshirt freshman Dave Stinebaugh as the only TEs left at the coaches’ disposal. It wouldn’t be a very big deal for a lot of teams, but tight end is an important part of the Maryland offense, used not only as targets in the passing game, but to force the defense to defend additional gaps in the running game. The Terps also like to use a variety of formations to exploit defenses, something Friedgen wrote about in a 2006 article for the American Football Coaches’ Association:
We attempt to gain advantage through the use of formations, shifts, or motion. Formations are like weapons with which we can attack defenses. Knowing how a particular formation stresses a defense is invaluable when trying to gain an advantage. Some formations can outflank a defense or make it adjust and open up other areas. Other formations force a defense to expand and take defenders out of the box. Reducing a defensive front might create an advantage for an offense that runs the football. If the defense won’t reduce, the advantage is in throwing the football.
Shifting and motion might force a defense to adjust if the offense can make the defense think. It might make the defense a little less aggressive. Some defensive adjustments might give the offense an advantage. If we determine standard adjustment in coverage or in defensive fronts, we try to incorporate them into our game plan. If the defense plays the field or the boundary and tries to keep their adjustments to a minimum, we have simplified the defense, and that can make it vulnerable.
Words from the man himself.
Maryland might have been 2-10 a year ago, but it’s unlikely that they’ll be quite so bad again this year. The question is just how much better the Terps will be. They’re a big, athletic BCS-conference team that runs the ball in ways that the Mids have struggled to defend in the past; but they’re also young, and playing against a Navy offense that requires discipline to defend. Both teams will be able to run the ball, which will make the game quick and possibly low-scoring. Hopefully, Navy’s more experienced team can make fewer mistakes and pull out the win.