A Sizable Loss for Maryland

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 7, 2008

MURFREESBORO, Tenn., Sept. 6 -- Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen worried all week about Saturday night, fearing that facing an unheralded and undermanned team in an unfamiliar setting could bring out the worst in his team. He lectured players on Maryland's ill-fated trek to the cornfields of DeKalb, Ill., five years ago that yielded a stunning season-opening loss at Northern Illinois.

Instead of heeding the warning, Maryland authored a performance even more unsightly. A team with 31 seniors proved no match for an inexperienced Middle Tennessee team that is not even expected to challenge for the Sun Belt title. The loss will be cursed and rehashed by Terrapins fans for years, but what it meant for Friedgen's legacy was clear: The 24-14 loss before 22,605 fans was the worst defeat of his eight-year tenure at his alma mater.

"Sometimes they don't hear you," Friedgen said about warning players. "That is my fault. I have to make them hear me."

Friedgen and several players deemed the performance embarrassing. They spread around the blame, citing poor focus in Thursday's practice and Friday's walk-through. Darrius Heyward-Bey even blamed the first week of classes. They pinpointed defensive miscommunication and overall disorganization.

Maryland's veteran offensive linemen outweighed the Blue Raiders defensive linemen by an average of 58 pounds, but Middle Tennessee applied constant pressure on quarterback Chris Turner, who made his first start of the season in place of the injured Jordan Steffy. Turner threw three interceptions and was sacked three times.

Maryland's pass defense hardly was tested in the season-opening victory against Delaware because the Blue Hens did not possess a quarterback who could throw the ball downfield. Middle Tennessee relied on efficient quarterback Joe Craddock, who set a career high in completions (28) and carved up Maryland's defense with precision passes to open receivers. Craddock, who threw for 256 yards, completed 19 passes before Turner completed one.

The positive for Maryland can be summed up in two plays that lasted a total of less than 30 seconds. Running back Da'Rel Scott had a 63-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. Heyward-Bey caught a third-quarter screen pass from Turner and out-sprinted everyone for an 80-yard score. Maryland's offense had the ball for just 20 minutes 11 seconds.

With a handful of talented skill position players and a veteran offensive line, much was expected of this Maryland team once it found a quarterback. The popular Turner was not named the starter initially, but got an opportunity Saturday and failed to generate a consistent offense.

"Right now, we're just a bunch of hype," defensive tackle Jeremy Navarre said.

A play that summed up Maryland's futility occurred with less than nine minutes remaining and Maryland trailing by 10. Facing a fourth and five from the Middle Tennessee 31, the Terrapins opted to use backup quarterback Josh Portis, but the athletic dual-threat junior was tackled behind the line of scrimmage, losing his helmet.

Despite being dominated throughout, the Terrapins (1-1) trailed by just three points late into the third quarter. But when Maryland needed a play from its pass defense, it instead got two missed tackles on another long play by Middle Tennessee. Craddock completed a pass to receiver Malcolm Beyah, who lost his shoe but not his balance on a 53-yard touchdown reception.

To start the third quarter, Maryland marched downfield on a much-needed 10-play drive that was keyed by Turner's two completions on third down. But Portis, who entered the game on third and six from the Middle Tennessee 21, gained only two on a running play. That gave place kicker Obi Egekeze a chance to redeem himself after missing three field goals in the Delaware game. But Egekeze bounced the 37-yard attempt off the left upright.

On Maryland's next possession, Turner threw over the middle, but Heyward-Bey fell down and linebacker Danny Carmichael intercepted and returned the ball 25 yards to inside the Maryland 10.

Midway through the second quarter, the Blue Raiders were dominating in almost every statistical category but only held a 10-7 lead. Craddock had completed 19 of 25 pass attempts; Turner had thrown three incompletions. Middle Tennessee had held the ball for more than 20 minutes; Maryland had held the ball for less than three minutes. The Blue Raiders surprised Maryland with a fake punt on the game's opening drive, a 10-play, 80-yard march that resulted in a five-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Sancho McDonald.

Maryland's players vowed to get back to work Monday. And they will need to because the next opponent, California, scored 66 points Saturday at Washington State. Friedgen said he will try to reinforce his message about focus in different ways. Players said they will pay closer attention.

"He was yelling at us all week," Navarre said. "And we didn't listen."

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