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.

Offense:
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.

Defense:
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.

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