Friday, September 30, 2011

Edsall stumbles Friedgen piles on

After the debacle against Temple head coach Randy Edsall made his first major gaffe by suggesting that the football program was undergoing a major restructuring that would take time. To be fair he never said the words "rebuilding" as some had suggested but it was a foolish thing to say on the heels of such a shambolic performance by his team in losing 38-7 at home. Edsall has taken some thinly veiled shots at his predecessor since he took over the job earlier this year. It seems fairly obvious that if the program was in great shape then Ralph Friedgen would still be the head coach. The ongoing academic problems that have resulted in a loss of scholarships due to low graduation rates and the careless violations of NCAA rules that resulted in lost practice time this season are just two examples of some of the problems at the end of Friedgen's tenure at Maryland. In the last two bowl games under Friedgen there were multiple players suspended for either a violation of team rules or academic ineligibility. The graduation rates were declining steadily and a significant number of players had to leave the team due to academic problems. To be fair the erstwhile AD Debbie Yow didn't help by slashing the academic support staff but Friedgen was the head coach and the failings are ultimately his responsibility.

The massive marketing campaign centered around the new uniforms probably inflated expectations too much for a squad with some talent but lacking the depth to contend for an ACC title. The play of stars like QB Danny O'Brien and LB Kenny Tate has been disappointing and certainly not good enough to overcome a lack of quality backups and mediocre starters who are playing because there is no talent behind them. To some extent Edsall is right, this program was in need of more repair than the smoke-and-mirrors 9 win season last year would indicate. While there are legitimate questions regarding Edsall's choice of coaching assistants and skepticism as to his ability to recruit elite players he will need time to institute his brand of football at Maryland. It appears the journey will be more tumultuous than Edsall and some fans would like. Even if the program is in worse shape than Edsall is letting on it was a misstep to characterize a loss, even as bad a stumble as the trouncing by Temple, as indicative of more systematic problems in the program as Edsall clearly suggested in his comments earlier this week. Getting past Edsall's law and order demeanor I thought he was more media savvy than to make such a blunder and he has taken a public relations beating as a result.

About the only person who came off worse in the media this week was Ralph Friedgen. On a Baltimore radio show the former coach just couldn't help himself and once again decided to take the low road while still collecting money from his eight year contract extension he signed in 2004. He said that he "burned" his Maryland diploma and "could[sec] care less about Maryland" while flying his Georgia Tech flag outside his house. His petty comments were reminder of the significant negatives of Ralph Friedgen. The petulance and arrogance of those statements are exhibits as to how he ended up alienating large segments of fans and local high school coaches before he was let go. Maryland did well by Friedgen but Friedgen did even better by Maryland. There were no schools offering head coaching jobs before he arrived in College Park. Since signing his eight year extension in 2004 and collecting over $12 million in salary and benefits Friedgen coached Maryland to a 44-42 overall record and an abysmal 24-32 record in the ACC. The Terps never finished better than tied for second place in the Atlantic division and finished in the top 25 just once. For that performance I think Friedgen was paid handsomely. I can understand Fridge being prickly about the implications of Edsall's comments but he has done himself no favors by making crass comments about his alma mater. He has the right to be bitter if he wants but he could have at least shown some dignity. Pity he couldn't even do that.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Yard Stick & Prisoner's Logic

The loss to West Virginia was illuminating. Maryland fans learned a few things about their team in the process not all of which was negative. It is clear Danny O'Brien is still learning. Though the hype was off the charts for the quarterback coming into this season he has looked shaky the first two games. He threw for a bunch of yards against a depleted Miami defense but also had an awful interception in the end zone that could have cost the Terps the game. Against West Virginia he had one of his worst games in a Maryland uniform. O'Brien looked jumpy in the pocket and threw into double and triple coverage often. For a cerebral player like O'Brien the poor judgement was the most surprising aspect of his struggles. It appeared West Virginia studied the tape of Gary Crowton's offense and had an answer of flooding the passing lanes with zone coverage. O'Brien often didn't see the second or third defender in coverage when he made a pass to a receiver. I'm not all that worried about O'Brien but his play showed that he still has a ways to go before he is an elite college passer.

The defense really struggled to contain the passing attack of West Virginia. Geno Smith mostly had his way with Maryland completing 36 passes out of 49 attempts for 388 yards. The Mountaineers didn't run the ball all that well, maybe because they didn't have to, only managing 3.0 yards per carry and 92 total yards. Corner Cam Chism really struggled and will get picked on all season unless he is able to improve his technique and limit his pass interference penalties. He isn't getting much help from the safety position as Franklin and Robinson are massing tackles but very few positive plays. The Kenny Tate at linebacker move has yet to bear any fruit as the senior stalwart seems to be a non-factor with this scheme. Linemen David Mackall and Andre Monroe are youngsters that could form a ferocious pass rushing duo by the end of the season. Tackle Joe Vellano has been rock solid on the interior. At linebacker the Terps are still struggling to find their way. This group struggles in pass coverage and the scheme doesn't seem to fit the strengths of Tate or Demetrius Hartsfield who are both athletic and capable of attacking the line of scrimmage. The defense continues to force turnovers but has been terrible on 3rd down, 46% on the season, and they gave four 1st downs to WVU on penalties. Maryland may have to hope to outscore opponents more often than not.

One bright spot was the running game. The return of D.J. Adams was a boon to the red zone offense and to Davin Meggett. The physical running of Adams is a good complement to Meggett and he finished with 64 yards and two rushing touchdowns. He and Meggett were the driving force behind Maryland's frantic comeback in the 2nd half. Gary Crowton would do well to focus more on establishing them both early in the game.

From a broader perspective this game highlighted the lack of depth on this squad. In some ways Randy Edsall has to retool the football team's roster as basketball coach Mark Turgeon must do with the basketball team. While it may take Turgeon only two recruiting cycles to build up his roster again it may take Edsall much longer. The depth at positions like linebacker, corner, safety and all along the offensive line need to be addressed in the coming recruiting seasons. It didn't help that in the offseason Edsall decided to show a number of 5th year players the door, LB Ben Pooler would have been useful this season, but there were also academic casualties from poor grades that Edsall inherited from Ralph Friedgen. I think this team can be successful this season but Edsall will need time to upgrade the program after he inherited a team that was 11-14 in the two years prior to his arrival.

If At First You Don't Succeed...
The ACC went back to the expansion well with the surprise announcement that Pittsburg and Syracuse were  fleeing the Big East to join the what has become a refugee conference in the ACC. The used car salesman of our conference John Swofford admitted expansion went more smoothly this time than the last time. We can add Master of the Bleeding Obvious to his list of titles. For me it was another reminder that the ACC is run by buffoons. His comments about having the ACC tournament in Madison Square Garden were presumptuous and crass. Listen to some radio on WFAN in New York and you'll quickly find out how well received those comments were when the father of the Big East, Dave Gavitt, was barely in the ground after dying from cancer on Friday.

If the reasons given by the ACC during the embarrassing news conference on Sunday or behind the scenes leaks to reporters sound familiar, this was about survival, expanding the conference footprint, insurance against a raid by the SEC, et cetera, et cetera, it is because the same kinds of things were said during the last failed ACC raid. In the years since the first merry go round the clear winners were the schools that fled the Big East: Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech. The rest of the conference has little tangible to show for inviting the new house guests to stay as long as they like with their dirty RV parked in the driveway. ACC basketball has sunk to its lowest level in decades and the football programs are as irrelevant as they have ever been. When national title pretenders like Virginia Tech are the best the ACC can put forth you know the ACC is like the NFC West in the professional football, a punch line and laughingstock. Miami's program might be on the verge of NCAA Armageddon and Boston College is in a vortex of football and basketball decline that is stunning. Adding football programs like Pitt and Syracuse is akin to adding another N.C. State or Wake Forest to the ACC. The league has decided to double down on a losing hand.

It is true that Pitt and Syracuse add strong basketball programs to a weakened ACC product, which is why Coach K was so positive about the move in contrast to the first round of expansion. On the other hand people thought Miami was a sterling addition to football when they came to the ACC. All they have produced since is on and off the field embarrassments. There is no guarantee that Pitt will be able to flourish with its brand of physical basketball in the ACC and once Jim Boeheim retires Syracuse could easily fall off the map as well. The bigger problem is that basketball can only earn a conference so much money. In the arms race of revenue the ACC has already fallen behind the Pac-12, Big Ten and SEC and this move will only widen the gap, even if it insures survival.

The more pertinent question for Maryland fans: is this good for Maryland? I think the answer is a resounding no. Perhaps if Maryland was like Wake Forest, Boston College or N.C. State whose athletic programs have little allure to other conferences then preserving the ACC would be of paramount importance. They would have few other attractive options should the ACC implode. Maryland would not be in that boat. With an attractive television market, good academics and solid revenue sports Maryland would be a juicy plum for either the Big Ten or SEC should it be up for grabs. If the ACC did crumble Maryland would be just fine and might be in an even better revenue situation.

As for the competitive implications it makes it that much more difficult to win an ACC title in basketball. In the last 30 years Maryland has three regular season titles and two ACC tournament titles competing against the likes of Duke and North Carolina. How many will Maryland win in the next 30 years with the likes of Pitt, Syracuse and potentially UConn added to the ACC?

The likely result of increasing to 14 members is that a 16 team mega conference with two 8 team divisions is the likely end game. Maryland would almost certainly be placed in a north division with the new arrivals. What will season ticket sales look like when Maryland's home football slate is Rutgers, Uconn, Boston College and Virgina? How will basketball fans react when Duke and North Carolina no longer play in Comcast Center every year but there are yearly games against Rutgers and Boston College? Both those are likely outcomes to this panic move. The idea that the ACC may accept two basketball programs in Syracuse and Connecticut that have had major NCAA violations with their current coaches, in UConn's case while still on probation, is sickening. I don't feel a cobbled together conference that may result from these moves is inherently stable either. My guess is that in 15 years the ACC will look very different than it does now and all of these moves for the sake of stability will not produce a financial windfall nor guarantee the loyalty of any members. College sports has turned into a version of the prisoner's dilemma where the logical choice is betrayal of conference loyalties, fan preference and historical affiliations to chase a few extra millions which amount to a minuscule sum compared with the size of a university budget. The logical choice of "strike first" by the ACC and schools like Pitt and Syracuse leads to an irrational result where few reap any significant benefits and the unknown variables in the future cannot be measured. The odds that the ACC will be able to increase revenue to keep up with the extra mouths to feed are very slim. The Pac-12 signed a television deal that smashed what the ACC was able to negotiate from ESPN and it had little to do with the additions of Colorado and Utah. Many erroneously assume that being "proactive" is the better option but when the future variables are unknowable that is often a mistake. In short I don't see any benefit to Maryland as a school or athletic program by these additions and there is a possibility that we may be locked into a conference that may survive but is a financial weakling at the mercy of the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12. That isn't a rosy scenario by any measure.

I think these words sum up the current situation as well as any I have read:

“What is lost in all of this is that the presidents — the very people tasked with enforcing the N.C.A.A.’s and the Knight Commission’s principle of ‘presidential control’ of college athletics — have proven to all that they are incapable of fulfilling their mandate,” Princeton’s athletic director, Gary Walters, said, referring to a watchdog group for college athletics. “The hypocrisy is almost tangible.”

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Terps triumph in deluge

The weather may have been atrocious at Byrd stadium last night but the play on the field demonstrated there could be bright days ahead for Maryland under Randy Edsall. The new offense under Gary Crowton showed a dynamism that Maryland has not had since maybe the early years under Ralph Friedgen. It was fitting that senior Ronnie Tyler, a player who has been a personal favorite of mine, scored the first touchdown of the season with a spectacular dive at the pylon. Tyler missed the bowl game last season after being suspended and had a difficult spring with his father suffering from a serious illness. It helped that QB Danny O'Brien was as sharp in the new offense as one could expect, save his poor decision on the end zone interception. It is difficult to judge because of the weather complications but the one area O'Brien can improve is his accuracy. Though his completion percentage was very high there were a number of passes, particularly when he was throwing on the move that forced receivers to make adjustments and resulted in incompletions.

O'Brien should be very happy with the play of his patch work offensive line. The group was superb given the low expectations going into this season. Guard Josh Cary struggled with a couple of false starts but settled down. Miami's defensive line wasn't at full strength but O'Brien was well protected and the running game was surprisingly effective against an athletic Hurricane defense. Tackles Max Garcia and R.J. Dill form a very underrated set of bookends and if Justin Gilbert can return from his knee injury in October the offensive line could be a position of strength. There will be tougher tests going forward in the season but there is little to be critical of with this unit after the opening game.

The loss of wideout Torrey Smith might not be a disaster with the emergence of Kevin Dorsey (124 yards receiving) and tight end Matt Furstenburg who were the most reliable targets for O'Brien. Dorsey was a highly rated player coming out of high school and has seemed to fine his comfort zone as a junior. He is a nice blend of speed (notice the 52 yard catch in the 4th quarter) and power. Furstenburg continues the lineage of fine receiving tight ends at Maryland going back to Vernon Davis. He has soft hands and a nose for finding the holes in zone coverage. He has enough speed to get down the seams in the middle of the field as well.

Davin Meggett had nice production at running back with 92 yards on 21 carries. He was a little indecisive at times which is problematic against a fast defense like Miami but had several nifty runs to the outside. There was little success for Maryland up the middle. The absence of D.J. Adams, suspended for the game, was telling in that area and near the goal line. Meggett and Justus (Corrected -ed.) Pickett ( the two T's?) are good in the open field but lack the power to run in confined areas.

The defense provided some big plays, including three turnovers and two defensive touchdowns, but I think there is reason for concern going forward. It was clear that Miami's offense was a little ham strung by the suspensions and Al Golden didn't have all the options that Edsall did with his offense. When Miami committed to a power running game the Terps had trouble stopping it. The long 3rd down conversions that Maryland allowed second string QB Stephen Morris to complete with a grab bag of a receiving corps could be an ominous sign. Though late in the game they got pressure on Morris the pass rush was not always reliable and the 3rd and long pass rush package was largely ineffective. The deep middle of the defense was a little shaky at times and the linebackers, while racking up tackles, struggled in pass coverage. Kenny Tate's move to linebacker was a flop, at least after a single data point. It seemed that Tate struggled to make plays in his new role and was largely irrelevant for most of the night. Perhaps Tate will grown into his new role but if this switch neuters the best playmaker on defense it will have been a huge failure. Andre Monroe probably isn't going to remind anyone else of John Randall (really Matt Millen, you couldn't have gone with Jay Ratliff or someone like that?) but he showed some great potential a substitute off the bench. He had a great swim move and pressured Morris while also being able to anchor against the run.

Kickoff coverage may also be a problem area as kicker Nick Ferrara struggled to get the ball deep and Miami nearly broke huge gains. West Virginia's Tavon Austin could pose some problems to the kick teams. On field goals Ferrara was mostly reliable in very bad conditions but his one miss could have cost Maryland the game.To his credit he came back and kicked a go ahead field goal later in the game.

Overall I think the miscues and sloppy play were minimal for an opening game against a quality opponent. There are many encouraging areas and I expect dramatic improvement over the next few weeks.

As for the uniforms I understand some of the negative reaction, most people outside Maryland don't understand how much pride there is in the state flag. It may not have been a sartorial triumph but I thought it was a great symbol of what Edsall and AD Kevin Anderson are trying to accomplish. Making the University a symbol of pride for the entire state. Maryland has a special advantage of being the public school for an entire state. There are not many schools that have that advantage. There is a transient quality to parts of Maryland that awful places like Penn State and Virginia Tech have been able to exploit. I think it is great that this regime is trying to protect the turf of the home state.