BALTIMORE — After finishing the 2009 campaign with a dismal 2-10 record, Maryland Terrapins football coach Ralph Friedgen had just two areas of focus for his team in the offseason.
“Hold on to the football” said Friedgen, “and finish.”
When the Terps opened their 2010 campaign against Navy at M&T Bank Stadium Monday, Friedgen certainly got one of his wishes.
The Midshipmen outgained the Terrapins offensively by a count of 485 yards to 272. The Mids ran 82 offensive plays to the Terps’ 39. Navy picked up 26 first downs while Maryland finished with just 11.
Yet in the end, the final score read Maryland 17, Navy 14.
When the game was over, Friedgen made a statement that would be hard for any Maryland fan to disagree with. He said, “Last year, we probably wouldn’t have won this game.”
There’s little doubt about that. Five of Maryland’s 10 losses last season were by one possession (Middle Tennessee State, @Duke, @NC State, @Florida State, Boston College). Games against Rutgers and Virginia in College Park also involved one-possession differences into the 4th quarter.
Had Maryland been able to “finish” those games, the entire season would have been different.
After going ahead 17-14 on a Travis Baltz field goal with 7:50 to play in the game, Maryland needed to come up with one more defensive stop to “finish” the Midshipmen. Just three plays into the Navy drive, Maryland had Navy backed up into a 3rd and 8 situation. The Terps looked like they had come up with the necessary stop when linebackers Adrian Moten and Alex Wujciak bottled up Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs (a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate) for a two-yard gain. Unfortunately, the stop came after an inadvertent facemask committed by Moten, moving Navy to their own 49 yard line.
Clearly, the penalty swung momentum in Navy’s favor. The Midshipmen proceeded to march downfield, where they faced 4th and goal from the 1-yard line with 37 seconds to play. Coach Ken Niumatalolo decided to go for the winning touchdown instead of attempting a field goal to send the game to overtime. Maryland S Kenny Tate kept Dobbs out of the end zone, finishing off a victory for the Terps.
Coach Niumatalolo’s thoughts after the game? “You have to find a way to finish.”
Maryland didn’t prove much about what type of football team they’d be in 2010 with their win over Navy. The gave up a ton of yards defensively and finished the game with more questions than answers offensively, including a potential QB controversy after Friedgen benched starter Jamarr Robinson for redshirt freshman Danny O’Brien briefly in the second half. They didn’t get the ball to their most dangerous playmaker (Torrey Smith) until after halftime, and Friedgen’s clock management late in the fourth quarter left something to be desired.
Yet, despite all of the struggles and despite facing adversity in the most important moments of the game, Maryland figured out a way to “finish.”
It is unlikely that this Maryland football team will play too many games before or during ACC play in 2010 where they will build a comfortable lead and just have to hang on. It is much more likely, given the level of competition, that to win football games, they will have to fight and scratch throughout. In fact, it is entirely likely that they will play more games where they are outgained, out-coached or outperformed, yet somehow manage to find themselves hanging close in the fourth quarter.
It happened nine times in 2009. The Terps managed to win just two of those games.
To start 2010, they now know they are capable of winning more.
RB Davin Meggett (who lead the team with 105 rushing yards and added a touchdown) told reporters after the game that coming up with that type of finish was “vastly important.” “We now know we can do it,” added Meggett, “I’m pretty sure (Coach Friedgen) is going to expect this from us. We’re going to do our absolute best to finish games now.”
When Maryland used a miraculous 4th down conversion from RB Lance Ball to beat Navy 23-20 in 2005, they could have well said the same things about learning how to finish games. But the Terps were just 1-3 after that point in games decided by one possession, including a loss the following week to Clemson. For the lesson they got in finishing on Monday to mean anything, they’ll have to prove that they truly are capable of winning those types of games.
If they do, things could be much more interesting at Byrd Stadium this season than some analysts have expected.
If they don’t, things could be much more similar to 2005, when the Terps finished the season 5-6 and failed to gain bowl eligibility.
It will depend on how they “finish.” Thanks to their finish Monday, they’re 1-0 when many fans and analysts alike thought they’d be 0-1.
That’s not a bad start.