By Marc Carig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 16, 2006
By every traditional statistical measure, the Maryland Terrapins shouldn't be in the hunt for a spot in the ACC championship game, shouldn't be going to a bowl game and shouldn't be the 21st-ranked team in the nation.
Maryland's run defense ranks 101st of 119 teams in the country, slightly worse than UNLV (1-9). Maryland's total offense checks in at 102, slightly better than 2-9 Colorado. And the last time the Terrapins stood on the plus side of turnover margin, Shawne Merriman and E.J. Henderson ruled the turf at Byrd Stadium.
Only quarterback Sam Hollenbach places in the top 50 in any individual offensive category, ranking 38th in the nation in passing efficiency rating, possibly making the Terrapins the world's worst fantasy football team.
Nevertheless, this reality remains: Despite keeping statistical company with some of the dregs of college football, the Terrapins (8-2, 5-1) enter the final two games of the regular season with a direct path to a date with Georgia Tech in Jacksonville, Fla.
"Sometimes some things are unexplainable," Maryland tight ends coach Ray Rychleski said. "It's been a great feeling for all of us."
But head coach Ralph Friedgen argues the unexplainable becomes quite explainable with the use of a statistic he learned during his time with the San Diego Chargers called major offensive errors.
"That's winning it for us; there's no doubt about it," Friedgen said. "It has at every level I've coached at. It's something I believe in very strongly, and it's one of the reasons we won our first year here."
The statistic is derived by adding a team's interceptions, fumbles, dropped passes, sacks and penalties during a game and dividing that by the team's total number of offensive plays. The key is to keep the result under 12 percent -- meaning that the team is committing a human error on 12 percent or less of its plays.
Maryland has been outgained each time during its five-game winning streak. But the Terrapins have stayed under the 12 percent threshold four times, winning despite a 12.7 percent rating against Clemson.
Through the years, Friedgen said the formula's accuracy is around 95 percent. In the past two years at Maryland, its accuracy has been closer to 90 percent.
"I would say it's a direct correlation," Terrapins wide receivers coach Bryan Bossard said.
Since his days as offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech, Friedgen has tinkered with various new statistics to measure errors. He came up with a similar stat while with the Yellow Jackets.
"It was kind of along the same lines as that, but we weren't smart enough to divide it into the number of plays," Friedgen said. "The year we won the national championship, we didn't make many errors either. It goes a long way to winning football games."
The stat caught the attention of former Georgia Tech basketball coach Bobby Cremins, who invited Friedgen to sit on the bench for a game in hopes of applying the concept to a turnover-prone point guard. But Friedgen didn't start using the formula in its current form until he joined the Chargers' coaching staff. He picked up the statistic from another NFL assistant coach who had used it with other teams, and he has been a believer ever since.
This season, the formula has helped the Terrapins thrive despite what Friedgen called "limitations."
Specifically, they started the season with an interception-prone quarterback, a wide receiving corps with nearly zero playing experience, a roster with one NFL-caliber player (punter Adam Podlesh) and a defense that so struggled with open-field tackling that the coach called the initial results embarrassing.
"If you don't beat yourselves, you give the opportunity to the other team to beat themselves," Friedgen said.
To that end, Friedgen virtually deleted the seven-step drop from the offensive playbook, placing an emphasis instead on getting the ball out of Hollenbach's hands faster, a move that has cut down on sacks and interceptions. Friedgen has opted for more short- and medium-range passes to replace the riskier deep ball.
In practice, coaches have placed more focus on ball security. Running backs Lance Ball and Keon Lattimore average more than five yards per carry, and the team has not lost a fumble since losing at Georgia Tech on Oct. 7.
The formula took on an even larger significance this season because of NCAA rule changes that have shortened games. Teams around the country are running fewer offensive plays compared with last season, and Friedgen said that puts more of a premium on maximizing offensive chances.
"I think that's a factor in this whole thing," Friedgen said. "There's a whole lot less plays being run right now than there used to be, probably 11 or 12 a game. When you have a turnover now, I think it's an even bigger thing for you that it was then."
While the major offensive error formula figures prominently in the Terrapins' resurgence, there are other factors, namely a stingy red zone defense that has allowed touchdowns in less than half of its chances and pure luck.
"We have been getting some breaks; I don't deny that," said Friedgen, who has watched opposing receivers drop would-be touchdown passes in two of the last three weeks. "But we were due."
And while Maryland's players are enjoying the results, they don't appear to be crunching numbers at the same rate as their coach.
"That might be a better question for the quarterback," offensive lineman Donnie Woods said. "I don't know the formula, I have no idea."
Despite his appreciation for numbers -- he once called the purchase of a new calculator one of the highlights of his semester -- Hollenbach is unsure of the particulars as well.
"It's kind of up my alley, being an engineer, plug in all the numbers and it will tell you whether you're going to win or lose," Hollenbach said. "But sometimes, it's better to be lucky than good."
In the Terrapins' case, a bit of both works, too.