Military Bowl: Aftermath of Syracuse loss helped Terps recover the season


(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

On the Tuesday and Wednesday after Syracuse, members of the Maryland football team’s leadership council were called into Gossett Team House to address the media, with express intentions in mind of explaining how things had changed. The Terrapins had lost, by 17 points at home, to the Orange, their third straight defeat in a season circling the drain. Yes, they were still 5-3, one game away from clinching postseason eligibility, but both of Coach Randy Edsall’s first two seasons in College Park had ended with long, soul-sucking losing streaks, so the players were left to wonder how to make this one different.

That week, the dreaded team-only meeting was called, where the leadership council – an 11-man, coach-appointed brain trust of sorts — talked about fun, and how currently there was none of the sort. They talked about how they felt the team had splintered into factions, threatening to undermine chemistry, and how the undefeated start against non-conference foes needed to serve as a lighthouse for a group that had lost its way. The Terps had reached a crossroads, and how they responded would define the season. If they succeeded, then would outsiders look upon this week as the moment of change?

“You could say that,” running back Albert Reid said then, in mid-November. “I’m not sure how everybody would look at it. We have to do something to the team. We’re a lot better than what we’ve been showing. Hopefully this will pay off, the team getting back together and becoming stronger as one.”

With the Military Bowl officially one week away, Maryland can now safely reflect on the week before it beat Virginia Tech at Lane Stadium in overtime and finally clinched its first postseason berth under Edsall. What Reid was hesitant to predict at the time becomes apparent in hindsight: whatever the Terps did after losing to Syracuse worked.

“It felt like we had a monkey on our back,” center Sal Conaboy said. “We had a couple team meetings where we talked things out. Everyone knew what had to be done and we did it.”

Said linebacker Marcus Whitfield: “We just sat down, did some soul-searching as a team. This is what we need to do, this is how it’s going to get done then we’ll get to where we want to go. I think it was definitely a learning point for us and it helped us get to where we are today.”

Of course, hindsight is advantageous for the players given how they responded: two wins in three games to close the season, securing their spot in nearby Annapolis on Dec. 27. Had a last-second field goal against Boston College not missed — or several ill-advised timeouts not been called, or any number of domino-toppling things not happened, for that matter — Maryland might have finished 8-4.

The 63-0 defeat suffered at Florida State was a colossal low, and so was losing wide receivers Deon Long and Stefon Diggs to broken legs during another rout at Wake Forest. But nothing was worse than Syracuse. Maryland had an entire bye week to prepare, and still emerged flat, dropping to 0-16 after Oct. 13 during the Edsall era. Quarterback C.J. Brown committed three turnovers. The Orange topped 100 penalty yards, and yet the Terps never found the end zone.

“I guess we just came together and said pretty much this is enough,” cornerback Jeremiah Johnson said. “Our goals are in front of us, but nobody’s going ot give them to us. If we want it, we’re really have to come together right now and make a statement and come out and leave it in our hands. We didn’t want it to leave it in anyone else’s. That’s pretty much how we left that.”

Whatever happened inside that Gossett Team House meeting room, where the players gathered to petition for a redress of grievances, will remain behind closed doors, other than the descriptions provided by the leadership council members trotted into interview sessions to discuss said change.

But the Terps can safely credit that week as the impetus for change, because even in squeaking out a win over the Hokies and drubbing a listless North Carolina State team in the finale, winning ACC road games this late in the season was something Edsall had struggled to do.

“You’re going to have ups and downs in football season,” linebacker Cole Farrand said. “The important thing is how you rebound and bounce back. I would’ve liked to have done that earlier in the season, but we got that seventh win and we’re going to the bowl game.”

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.

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Alex Prewitt · December 20, 2013