COLLEGE PARK, Md. — If you glanced up at the scoreboard Saturday evening, you might have wondered how Ralph Friedgen and the Terps managed to schedule Morgan State for a second time this season.
Maryland (6-2, 3-1 ACC) dominated all facets of the game in a 62-14 victory over a Wake Forest team (2-6, 1-4 ACC) that looked more like an FCS school than an ACC rival. The win makes the Terps bowl-eligible for the first time since 2008 — and after the first 10-loss season in the history of the program.
A soft schedule makes it difficult to figure out how improved the Terps really are — though a 48-point victory over a conference opponent will raise a few eyebrows at least — but the next four weeks will provide a clearer picture with the Terps taking on two teams currently ranked in the Top 25. We have to acknowledge the Terps, at the very least, are winning all the games they’re supposed to, a concept Maryland has struggled with in recent seasons.
Special teams play and and a emphasis on taking better care of the football have been major factors in the turnaround, but there’s no questioning one area in which the Terps have improved dramatically.
The quarterback position, with Danny O’Brien under center.
“He’s very intelligent,” Friedgen said. “He’s like a sponge, wanting to soak up experiences. He doesn’t get rattled if he makes a mistake, which is really quite a quality in a redshirt freshman. I think he’s going to continue to get better. I really do.”
Despite junior Jamarr Robinson beginning the season as the starter, the redshirt freshman O’Brien has seized control of the job more emphatically than any quarterback in College Park since early in the Friedgen era with Shaun Hill and Scott McBrien. He plays the opposite of what you expect from a freshman quarterback, taking care of the football (only three interceptions) and completing the throws the defense gives him (13 touchdowns).
Those three interceptions came in the fourth quarter at Clemson after the Terps had fallen hopelessly behind, eventually falling 31-7 in Death Valley. It was a rare time in which O’Brien looked the part of a freshman quarterback trying to force throws and making mistakes.
Entering Saturday’s game, O’Brien already held the freshman record for touchdown passes (nine) and added to that mark Saturday with four touchdown strikes despite being replaced by Robinson halfway through the third quarter with the game getting out of hand quickly in the second half. It was the most in one game by a Maryland quarterback since Joel Statham — one of several quarterbacks to frustrate the fan base over the last seven years — threw four at Duke on Sept. 25, 2004.
O’Brien finished the day completing 13 of 20 passes for 168 yards with the four passing scores to Torrey Smith, Quintin McCree, Haroon Brown, and LaQuan Williams. The young quarterback completed passes to eight different receivers in what’s becoming a trademark in his performances, diversifying the passing game and using a talented receiving unit that has been underutilized in recent years.
“Just getting into the flow of a game quicker and quicker every week,” O’Brien said. “I’m starting to [play with] more of a rhythm. I’m really confident just because I have playmakers all around me and a line that’s protecting me, so it makes my job pretty easy.”
To say O’Brien has played beyond his years is an understatement, but his performance is not as surprising to those who have watched him closely, especially Friedgen, who considered burning his redshirt eligibility late last season but decided against it. Offensive coordinator James Franklin immediately saw the potential in O’Brien by watching him practice a year ago, often looking like the best quarterback on the field.
Interestingly enough, I first watched O’Brien play in a scrimmage at Byrd Stadium in August 2009. For my money, he was the best quarterback on the field. Better than Chris Turner and Robinson despite having only walked on campus a few weeks earlier.
“He really hasn’t exceeded my expectations,” said offensive coordinator James Franklin. “I had very, very high expectations for him and our entire offense and our team. He’s accurate, he’s got good athleticism. He’s got a lot of the ingredients that we looked for when we recruited him, and all those things have held true.”
The freshman oozes confidence and efficiency for a Maryland offense that was plagued by the turnovers of Chris Turner and Robinson a year ago. The Terps offense now stands at plus-10 in turnover margin after Maryland committed an appalling 24 turnovers in 12 games last season.
That growing conviction has even radiated during his conversations with Friedgen, who shared how certain O’Brien was about beating Wake Forest, the college team he cheered for growing up in Kernersville, N.C.