Mike Wise
Mike Wise
Columnist

Maryland football already has won something Saturday: a reason to pay attention

John McDonnell/The Washington Post - The Maryland student section is shown during the Maryland Terrapins defeat of the Old Dominion Monarchs 47 - 10 in football at Byrd Stadium.

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Whatever happens at Florida State on Saturday at noon, a ranked Maryland team is playing on national cable television for the first time since 2008.

That’s man-bites-dog news in College Park, where C.J. Brown, Stefon Diggs and a twin-turbo offense deserve respect as they alter the perception of a program as much as their coach.

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Really, doesn’t Randy Edsall’s crew cut look cleaner at 4-0?

Further, isn’t it about time Byrd Stadium bulged with 50,000-plus again? It’s almost a disservice to these kids that just 35,000 tickets have been released and sold in advance for Virginia next Saturday, the last time a game against a traditional rival is going to mean as much at Big Ten-bound Maryland.

How many more points and yards do the Terps have to rack up to be seen as a viable entertainment commodity again? Granted, it might take an entire season to judge the full ascent of the program. But on their way to see if they can summit No. 8 Florida State, the 25th-ranked Terrapins’ legions really should pause for a moment to gaze how far below the valley looks.

See, somewhere between about 2007 and Saturday in Tallahassee, Maryland football stopped really mattering to the masses.

Oh, the booster club cared, and the parents of the players were all in. But as a whole, the Terrapins fell off the Washington sports radar.

It was partly their fault; back-to-back 5-6 seasons by Ralph Friedgen in 2004 and 2005 ended the almost-capacity crowds he created with three straight 10-wins seasons beginning in 2001. And certainly Edsall’s public-relations missteps and six wins in his first two years combined didn’t help.

But in the time it took to rebuild the Terps, the D.C. sports market became saturated with young stars and teams that actually had a shot.

Less than a decade ago, Maryland football and basketball were easily No. 3 behind a team again coached by Joe Gibbs and an NBA team with Gilbert Arenas that briefly excited. (Actually, Terps basketball was No. 2 in town when Gary’s teams were either rolling or free-falling — the drama was good either way.)

Until 2005, remember, there was no baseball inside the beltway. After their maiden season at RFK, the few moments the Nationals seized the region’s attention were mostly relegated to a new stadium, the hiring or firing of a manager or a guy named Smiley from the Dominican Republic showing everyone how inept the organization was.

But then Stephen Strasburg and the standing-room-only strikeout happened.

And a bolt of brashness named Bryce Harper and 2012 followed. Between Strasburg’s historic debut in June 2010, Harper’s signing that August and the hiring of Mike Shanahan that January, Maryland mattered much less on the D.C. sports scene.

Sure, Gary had his loyalists and plenty of alumni who cared. But by then, the 2002 national title season was a memory, and Friedgen wasn’t going to Orange Bowls anymore.

Edsall didn’t exactly provide an immediate balm, either, after the messy firing of the Fridge.

Before the 37-0 dismantling of West Virginia two weeks ago in Baltimore, Edsall’s most memorable moment at Maryland came on opening night, 2011, with huge help from a former Terps special-teamer. Jumping on the new-uni bandwagon, Maryland unveiled a kaleidoscope of color via Under Armor as it dashed to victory over Miami on ESPN.

Yes, the players in their checker-cab, state-flag uniforms looked like Willie Shoemaker mounting his steed at the Preakness. But they played fast and furious — and won.

Two seasons under Edsall, though, amounted to 6-18, a mass exodus of players — including Danny O’Brien, the 2010 ACC rookie of the year, and utter disenchantment from a fan base. Not even Kevin Plank’s cool fabrics could make them play well.

But here in Year Three of the Randy Man Era, Maryland is averaging almost 500 yards of total offense per game. Brown at quarterback and Diggs at wide receiver are two of the most productive and electrifying players in college football.

Diggs is not making it to his senior year because his hands are so massive and his play-making abilities so good, he will probably be one of the top 10 picks of the 2015 NFL draft.

The defense doesn’t pressure the quarterback; it pummels him. Maryland has 17 sacks in four games, tied for first nationally.

If the Terps can’t pack Byrd Stadium after not playing in College Park for 35 days, if they can’t pull in a monster crowd for homecoming against Clemson, currently No. 3 in the country, on Oct. 26, that says less about the team than it does about a fan base.

Because after the days of 2-10 and 4-8, a crisp fall Saturday that matters is something to savor. From such a lack of interest has emerged a must-see game from Tallahassee at noon on ESPN.

It took the Terps a while — frankly, much too long. But Maryland football is back on the national stage again.

For the first time in years, a multitude will be watching and caring about a program that teetered on the worst brink of all: the brink of apathy.

These kids and, yes, Edsall changed that. You can’t jeer the turtle anymore. Again, that’s an accomplishment — irrespective of what happens Saturday in Tallahassee.

For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

 
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