Monday, September 28, 2009

More great news

Maryland basketball forward Jordan Williams was charged with third degree assault and breach of peace in his native Connecticut for an incident on August 8th. You can read about it in USA Today and in the local Torrington paper The Citizen. There are no details regarding the incident since the warrant was filed under seal. Oddly three of the four other individuals charged are female. The charges are fairly minor and probably not something to get overly worked up about but it isn't a great way to start your career. He has a court date on October 5.

Offense stumbles as defense crumbles

While listening to a national radio sports on Saturday morning I heard a host refer to the Maryland versus Rutgers game as one "we should pay you to watch." The sad part was that though it was a sarcastic throwaway comment it was fairly accurate. It now appears that the little respect given to Maryland before the season by sports writers was well deserved. The sober truth is that this team isn't very good. The inexperience of the offensive and defensive lines is one thing but when veterans like QB Chris Turner and RB Da'Rel Scott are the players who give the game away then you have far more serious problems than youth.

Turner clearly had the worst game of his career to this point. He gave 14 points to Rutgers himself with an interception for a touchdown and a fumble in the end zone that was recovered by the Scarlet Knights. Not only did he make very poor decisions, which had been his strength given his lack of athleticism and weak arm, but he also seemed flustered. Rutgers did a good job of getting pressure on Turner but he wasn't running for his life the whole game either. Rutger's QB Dominic Natale was sacked three times on only 13 pass attempts and often faced blitzers coming from different positions. Late in the game Turner wasn't seeing open receivers and was rushing his progressions. It was as if the senior had completely lost his poise. It will be hard for Maryland to win another game unless Turner improves his play significantly.

Time may be running out for Da'Rel Scott. As impressive as Scott's skills are and his ability to be a home run hitter at running back Maryland cannot afford to have him keep fumbling at this rate. He clearly has a case of fumblitice and he wouldn't be the first running back to have a career derailed by that malady.

I thought the offensive line didn't play well but with Campbell back maybe now there will be some more stability. Friedgen will have to start making some decisions about who will get the most time now that the ACC season is starting. Maurice Hampton made some mistakes but also showed some promise and may finally be making a move to claim a starting roll. The lack of continuity has prevented the offensive line from improving much in the last three games.

Overall I thought the defense had a very good effort. Certainly the final score looks bad but the defense wasn't even on the field for 14 of Rutgers' 34 points and another three points came off a Scott fumble deep in Maryland territory. They collapsed late in the game when the tackling really got sloppy but that was probably more a function of the offense continuing to put them in bad spots all game. They kept the Terps in the game until late in the 4th quarter despite all the turnovers and if it wasn't for Turner's gaffe on a terrible shovel pass call near Maryland's goal line they would have gone into the fourth quarter with a 13-10 lead. Rutgers only managed 249 total yards, 118 of which were on the last two drives of the 4th quarter, and only managed 42 passing yards. When the offense has turned the ball over nine times in two games it is hard to blame the defense. Sloppy tackling was a problem but young players like DT Zach Kerr and DT A.J. Francis are starting to show some promise. Even LB Demetrius Hartsfield, who has had terrible problems making tackles, showed some improvement on Saturday.

Punter Travis Baltz struggled through another mediocre game before he sprained his ankle. He is likely to miss at least a few weeks. Kicker Nick Ferrera might be called to kick and punt. The kickoff coverage was improves over the last two games and there was even a touchback.

I'll write more about where the team goes from here as the week goes on. The outlook isn't all bleak but this is shaping up to be a rough season in College Park.

Week 5 Poll

1 Texas 1
2 Florida 1
3 Alabama
4 LSU 3
5 Southern Cal 3
6 Ohio State 3
7 Boise State 3
8 Oklahoma 4
9 Virginia Tech 2
10 TCU 3
11 Cincinnati 13
12 Oklahoma State 3
13 Nebraska 1
14 Houston 8
15 Georgia 10
16 Mississippi 10
17 Kansas 3
18 Michigan
19 Iowa
20 Penn State 15
21 Brigham Young 2
22 Oregon
23 Miami (Florida) 7
24 Georgia Tech
25 California 21
Last week's ballot

Dropped Out: North Carolina (#17), Washington (#19), Florida State (#21).

Friday, September 25, 2009

Q&A with Rutgers Blogger

Jon from the Bleed Scarlet blog has been kind enough to answer some questions about Rutgers. You can see my answers to his question on his blog.

1. The injury status of freshman QB Tom Savage (great name btw) is up in the air. If Savage doesn't get the start what can we expect from senior Domenic Natale?

Jon from Bleed Scarlet: From his play in the opener vs. Cincinnati, Dom Natale is a bit of a mixed bag. He has decent scrambling ability, and is fairly accurate. He showed that he can move the ball a little yardage wise. Doesn't really have a cannon for an arm though. The problem in was with turnovers. Natale was locking on to receivers, and forcing too many throws. It didn't help that the offensive line looked green in pass protection, and made a lot of mistakes that day. Savage's status is unclear (the implication is that he had a minor concussion, although there hasn't been any direct confirmation), so Natale may play. He's the only realistic option, because Jabu Lovelace is solely used for a special option package.

Savage probably gives the team a better chance to win, although he will make his share of freshman mistakes. They've been keeping it simple for him, with a lot of quick outs, and more Shotgun than we're used to seeing. A lot will depend on the receiving corps, where Rutgers is very inexperienced behind the starters. My hope is that the offense will do a better job of getting the Tight End and backs involved in the receiving game to take some pressure off whoever does ends up starting. Running the ball effectively, and subsequently some play action would do wonders too. They'll need to get into a rhythm fast in a hostile environment, and keep a fast tempo up.

2. Rutgers is supposed to have a running back by committee with Joe Martinek and Jourdan Brooks but Martinek is getting the majority of the carries. Is Martinek the main horse now? How do their running styles differ?

Coach Schiano isn't big on platooning backs. His preference is for a bonafide starter to emerge, and give that player 25-30 carries a game. Martinek and Brooks were running neck and neck during training camp, and are currently listed as co-starters on the depth chart. What they've been doing is that they'll both see a series or two early in games, and whoever looks better ends up toting the rock the rest of the day.

Martinek is probably the better fit at the moment with the offensive line still struggling with run blocking. He can make quick cuts with his slashing style, and has better vision for finding holes. Joe's more of an all purpose guy - he hits the whole quick, and can break a few tackles running downhill.

Brooks hasn't looked bad, but his problem at the moment is that, while he has good top end speed, he doesn't have a lot of short area acceleration. Hence, the poor run blocking has meant that he keeps getting tackled for losses on plays where Martinek will at least make it back to the LOS if not gain a yard or two. Jourdan is a big back, and he has good long speed if he can get into the flat with a blocker, or some empty space ahead of him. They've been using him a bit as a battering ram to soften up defenses over the course of the game.

Last week also saw the return of Kordell Young as a third down specialist. He's a quicker back who's had a few knee injuries, and is used for screens and the like. He replaced the injured Mason Robinson in that role, and the freshman De'Antwan Williams is nipping at Young's heels.

3. How has the Rutger's defense been performing so far? Any players Maryland fans should watch out for?

The defense looked atrocious in the opener. Cincinnati ran a spread offense where they'd line up in the Shotgun with four or five receivers, simply throw to the open guy that found the hole in zone coverage, and sprint downfield as the DBs would miss tackle after tackle. That strategy got Rutgers out of its element on defense. Its strength is with the front seven. The linebackers are very good, and the getting after the passer has always been the team's M.O. on defense under Greg Schiano and his attacking, speed-heavy 4-3 scheme. They need to be moving forward, not backpedalling into coverage.

The good news is that it looks like the problems may have had more to do with Cincy's superior personnel than with scheme (although, Coach Schiano has tinkered with the depth chart a bit over the past two weeks). FIU tried to spread RU out as well, to little effect. For teams that have a good QB and depth at receiver though, Rutgers only has one returning starter at CB this year in Devin McCourty, so it's possible to pick on the other corners on the field.

As you may recall from the 2007 game, the defense is very undersized up front, with the line averaging 260 lbs or so. If Maryland can get some push up front between the tackles, they'll be able to move the chains all day. The main difference from two years ago is that the team's best player, MLB Ryan D'Imperio, provided a big upgrade to the team's run defense when he returned from his injured 2007 campaign last year. All of the tacklers can be aggressive to the point of overpursuing, and sometimes they'll give up big plays on say a draw when sending in a defensive back or two on a zone blitz.

It's a good unit overall. If they can get to Turner before his receivers get a chance to get open, force a few early throws, and make him fear footsteps, that'll be a big help on Saturday. I'm concerned about our offense, but expect the defense to show up and play well.

4. Special teams seem to be a little of a problem area for Rutgers. The return game could use some improvement but how is the kicking game and punt coverage?

Actually, the special teams look far improved to this point, after being dreadful in 2007, and still bad last year. Coverage and returns look far, far better; although players on both units are still prone to mental gaffes. Rutgers plays it very conservative on returns, but loves trying to block kicks and punts. Kicker San San Te has decent range on field goals, but I'm still not sold on his accuracy. Not saying that it's bad, but he hasn't had enough opportunities to this point to prove himself, and was battling a back injury last year. With the Maryland/MTSU game coming down to a field goal, it's a concern. Punter Teddy Dellaganna has shown improvement to this point. He has a very strong leg, but still needs a bit more polish when it comes to the intracacies of the position. The team is also breaking in a new long snapper and holder.

Thanks to Jon for some good analysis.

Scheme or players

The ACC Sports Journal has an article worth reading about the struggles that the Terps have endured through the first three games. The prognosis seems pretty grim. One interesting question raised by the article is if defensive coordinator Don Brown has the personnel to run his scheme. It is a difficult question to answer with certainty but I think it is probably true that right now the players are not able to execute the attacking scheme that Brown would like to run. Though the players did seem much better at forcing turnovers(3) and getting sacks(4) against MTSU than in the first two games. Perhaps we'll see some dramatic improvement over the next few games. I'm a little more impressed with LB Adrian Moten and CB Cameron Chism that the writers at the ACC Sports Journal

Monday, September 21, 2009

Tragedy of errors

Maryland's defeat by Middle Tennessee has to be the ugliest loss of the Ralph Friedgen era. The last time Maryland lost at home to a non-BCS conference foe was in 1997 under Ron Vanderlinden when Ohio came to College Park and beat the Terps 21-14.

That year Maryland finished 2-9.

Middle Tennessee State(MTSU) didn't control this game like they did in last season's 24-14 victory but Blue Raiders coach Rick Stockstill, he of the 17-21 career record versus teams other than Maryland, got just enough from his offense and mistakes from the Terps to pull out a win. It was more galling that MTSU didn't even play that great of a game. It is one thing to lose to a team that played the best game of their season but another to give away a game that you had no business losing. Maryland handed MTSU this game with four turnovers, three of which were deep in Maryland territory, and a slew of poor execution on offense and special teams.

This fiasco could probably be dissected for the next two weeks but I'll cover my thoughts with some broad brush strokes.

This loss is squarely on an offense that turned the ball over four times, resulting in 17 points by MTSU, and that failed to convert first downs at critical moments. Offensive coordinator and coach-in-waiting James Franklin rightly took blame for his poor playcalling late in the game. It should be more than a little concerning to Maryland fans that Franklin is lined up as the next head coach when his actual game day decisions have been at best uneven. The turnovers are something that the coaches have little control over but the four 3-and-out offensive possessions and inability to sustain drives (only one drive over 7 plays) speaks to failures in game plan in addition to execution. The success of the offense against MTSU was mostly based on WR Torrey Smith and RB Da'Rel Scott making big plays instead of great playcalling. Smith has been a revelation at wide receiver and is blossoming into a star. It will be worth watching to see if against the better defenses of the ACC Smith can keep up the same production but with 748 all purpose yards through three games he is easily on pace to shatter Thomas Jones ACC record of 2,054 all purpose yards in a season.

Scott had his worst day as a Terrapin with two costly fumbles that resulted in 10 points for MTSU. If he had just held on to the ball Maryland would have likely won the game. Scott was benched after his second fumble and probably rightly so but the staff cannot give up on the best running back the team has because of one bad game. There is a significant drop off when Davin Meggett comes in at running back as he lacks the speed and quickness of Scott. The offense stagnated when Meggett came in late in the 1st quarter and with this offensive line he doesn't have the wiggle or elusiveness that Scott can provide.

Quarterback Chris Turner had a decent, if unspectacular, performance. I don't think Turner contributed to Maryland losing the game as the interception he threw was a fluke play, but he also could not carry the offense on his back either. It has become clear that Turner is a game manager type of quarterback and not much more than that. Putting the ball in Turner's hands and asking him to win the game is probably not something the senior is capable of doing regularly. The poor decision by Franklin to call a running bootleg by Turner late in the 4th quarter was an illustration of this point.

It may seem odd to some readers but I thought the defense actually played well and has shown the most improvement of any group on the team through three games. It would have been better if the defense held MTSU to field goals after some of the turnovers but when the offense gets to start in Maryland territory four times it isn't surprising that they gave up some points. The defense held MTSU to 87 rushing yards and forced MTSU quarterback Dwight Dasher into three turnovers while sacking him four times. Dasher did throw for over 300 yards against a defense that was missing two starters in the secondary and gave up a field goal on the game's final drive that resulted in a loss so it wasn't a stellar effort but I thought they played well enough to win. The group showed some signs that they are starting to get comfortable with Don Brown's blitzing style and individuals like LB Adrian Moten and CB Cameron Chism are emerging as star players. Moten is clearly the best defender on the team and was all over the field making plays. He is the most athletic linebacker in a group that lacks great speed and seems to have a nose for big plays. Chism made his first career start finishing with 12 tackles and two interceptions. He was beat on a double move late in the game that resulted in MTSU's winning field goal but I hardly think you can blame the result on a sophomore making his first career start. Senior Anthony Wiseman has been much more unreliable this season than Chism. I think Chism has the chance to be an excellent cover corner and a true ball hawk if he is given some time to develop. He is being thrown into the fire and will probably get burned in ACC play but he acquitted himself well in his first start.

Special Teams:
Lost in some of the talk of the offensive and defensive struggles has been the deterioration of the special teams play. Torrey Smith has done a good job on kick returns but that is about it for this group. All-ACC punter Travis Baltz has hardly been impressive with a 39 yard average and only two punts inside the 20 yard line. Nick Ferrera has been okay for a freshman kicker making 4/6 field goals but he did have one blocked against MTSU and his kickoffs have been dreadful allowing great field position for the opposing offense. The Blue Raiders averaged starting field position after kickoffs was the 30 yard line and James Madison averaged starting at their own 40 after kickoffs the week before. That puts the defense at a huge disadvantage. The snaps on the field goal attempts were also terrible against MTSU and holder Travis Baltz did the best he could to get the ball down and placed for Ferrera. The other special teams fiasco is punt return. I cannot recall a game where a coached used three different punt returners like Friedgen did against MTSU. Tony Logan is probably the best natural return man of the trio but Friedgen still used Kenny Tate, who fumbled last week, and Anthony Wiseman. The musical chairs at punt returner certainly isn't helping the offense with better field position. Perhaps the departure of special teams guru Ray Rychelski has revealed itself to be a much bigger blow than fans thought as the special teams has been a house of horrors this year.

Week 4 Poll

1 Florida
2 Texas
3 Alabama 1
4 California 1
5 Penn State 1
6 Mississippi 1
7 LSU 1
8 Southern Cal 5
9 Ohio State
10 Boise State 2
11 Virginia Tech
12 Oklahoma 2
13 TCU 2
14 Nebraska 4
15 Oklahoma State 2
16 Miami (Florida)
17 North Carolina 2
18 Michigan 6
19 Washington
20 Kansas
21 Florida State
22 Houston
23 Brigham Young 13
24 Cincinnati 1
25 Georgia 4
Last week's ballot

Dropped Out: Georgia Tech (#13), Utah (#16), Missouri (#22), Oregon State (#23).