Ralph Friedgen and the Terps weren’t taking their latest trip to Charlottesville for granted, and how could they?
With their Atlantic Division title hopes still in their own hands and having lost eight of their last nine at Scott Stadium, Maryland used a 21-point fourth quarter to take care of business in a convincing 42-23 win over the Cavaliers Saturday night.
Freshman running back D.J. Adams scored three touchdowns and freshman quarterback Danny O’Brien tossed two scores and ran for one, as the Terps improved to 7-3 overall and 4-2 in the ACC, setting up a primetime battle against Florida State in College Park next week.
We’ve doubted the Terrapins all season, because of a soft schedule and the fresh memory of a 2-10 record in 2009, but it’s time to start giving credit where it’s due. Issues remain for the Maryland football program that won’t be resolved overnight — the future of the coaching staff at the top of the list — but Friedgen has this group playing efficient, opportunistic football.
Recent history made it easy to envision the Terps falling flat against the Cavaliers after a heartbreaking 26-20 loss at Miami last week, a game in which the freshman O’Brien played the worst game of his young career and the defense struggled throughout the afternoon and folded on the final drive.
Instead, O’Brien threw for 289 yards against a formidable Virginia pass defense, including fourth-quarter touchdown passes to Torrey Smith (7 catches for 157 yards) and Da’Rel Scott that transformed a two-point deficit through three quarters into a comfortable 19-point win. The Terps went 6-for-6 inside the red zone to account for their 42 points.
Don Brown’s defense struggled to pressure Virginia quarterback Marc Verica and surrendered 20 first-half points, but held the Cavaliers to just a field goal after intermission and picked off Verica twice in a stout second-half effort.
As they have throughout the season, the Terps limited their mistakes (no turnovers) unlike the Cavaliers who committed 16 penalties for 145 yards and two second-half turnovers.
In many ways, Saturday’s win was a microcosm of how improbable this season has been. Who would have guessed Adams — who totaled just two carries all season against teams not named Morgan State and Wake Forest — would cure Maryland’s struggles inside the red zone with three touchdown runs from inside the 10?
And who would have predicted this team would snap a three-game losing streak against Virginia and win for only the second time in Maryland’s last 10 trips to Charlottesville, a place of horrors for over a decade? As we saw two years ago when the Terps went there as a two-touchdown favorite and were lambasted 31-0, a win over the Cavaliers can never be taken for granted, even with Virginia’s 4-6 record in 2010.
Whether you’re a believer in Friedgen and the current staff, or one of the many shouting for drastic change to a program that’s fallen on difficult times over the last several years, it’s time to acknowledge this is a pretty good football team — at least how it relates to a soft ACC — and credit a group of players determined to put a disastrous 2009 season behind them.
Maryland will undoubtedly be a home underdog next Saturday when the Seminoles invade Byrd Stadium with the Atlantic Division up for grabs (N.C. State is also very much in the picture), but this Florida State team isn’t one of the unbeatable squads coached by Bobby Bowden in the mid-90s. If the Terps play mistake-free football as they have so often this year, it’s not impossible envisioning a victory at Byrd Stadium, which will hopefully be packed to support an unlikely success story.
Regardless of what happens in their final two games against Florida State and N.C. State, Friedgen and the Terps are playing with house money after reaching the seven-win plateau and assuring themselves of a bowl game in a season in which they were picked to finish last in the Atlantic Division.
Friedgen spoke two weeks ago about his team reaching its “minimum” goal of bowl eligibility after picking up its sixth win of the season against Wake Forest. With Saturday’s win at Virginia, the Terps kept themselves in position for their maximum goal of an ACC Championship.
While it still seems unlikely, it’s becoming more conceivable every week.