By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 20, 2009
The routine was all too familiar for Maryland's players. Another game against Middle Tennessee, another slow postgame walk from a football field as some Terrapins bowed their heads and others glanced at a scoreboard in disbelief.
Unlike last season, when the Blue Raiders earned a 10-point victory over Maryland, the Terrapins played well enough to win Saturday. But four turnovers and an inability to stop Middle Tennessee on the game's decisive drive led to the same outcome, this time a devastating 32-31 loss before a stunned Byrd Stadium crowd of 43,167.
"As bad a loss as I have ever been involved with," said Maryland offensive coordinator James Franklin, who assumed blame for the loss because he said he called a bad play late in the game.
After Middle Tennessee's Alan Gendreau kicked a 19-yard game-winning field goal as time expired, Maryland cornerback Anthony Wiseman tossed his helmet to the ground, the Blue Raiders pranced onto the field and a less-than-capacity crowd serenaded the Terrapins with boos.
If last week's overtime victory over division I-AA James Madison was not enough to sound an alarm in College Park, Saturday's loss is guaranteed to raise concerns among even the most optimistic fans. Not only is Middle Tennessee (2-1) now responsible for two of the worst losses of Coach Ralph Friedgen's career, but this season is on the verge of unraveling two weeks before Maryland (1-2) plays its first ACC game.
Considering injuries, inexperience, two nonconference losses and the arduous schedule ahead, Friedgen said this season may represent the biggest challenge of his head coaching career. After weeks of preaching patience with his young team, Friedgen at times uncharacteristically raised his voice in Saturday's postgame news conference. He was as angry as he has been in some time for one reason: fumbles.
Maryland backup quarterback Jamarr Robinson, who played three first-half plays to give starter Chris Turner's increasingly banged-up body a rest, lost one fumble. And running back Da'Rel Scott offset his 117-yard performance, which included a 48-yard touchdown run, with two fumbles.
"If he fumbles, you're not going to see him in the game anymore," Friedgen said sternly. "You lose games when you fumble."
Overall, Friedgen said many players "just didn't seem into it" during the game. He vowed that his team would play better next week against Rutgers and promised to start getting "real tough" on the team and not worrying about whether players have tired legs in practice. "They need to start worrying about how I feel," Friedgen said.
With a little more than nine minutes remaining, Middle Tennessee quarterback Dwight Dasher, who completed 27 of 44 passes for 324 yards, completed a fourth-and-one pass over the middle to wide receiver Garrett Andrews. Neither Wiseman nor strong safety Kenny Tate could tackle Andrews before he crossed the goal line on a 32-yard touchdown reception that gave the Blue Raiders a 29-28 advantage.
Maryland freshman Nick Ferrara made a 42-yard field goal three minutes later, and the Terrapins were in position to milk the clock and widen their two-point lead in the game's final five minutes after Cameron Chism intercepted Dasher on the Blue Raiders' next drive. But on first down at the Middle Tennessee 32-yard line, Franklin called a naked bootleg for Turner, and left end Jamari Lattimore sacked Turner for a 10-yard loss.
"Huge play," Franklin said. "We called it as a run. It obviously was not a good call. If I make a better call in four-minute offense, the game is over. It is on my shoulders, not the players'. The loss is on me."
Facing a fourth-and-three play from the Middle Tennessee 25, Franklin wanted to go for it, but after the game said Friedgen made the right call by opting to let Ferrara attempt a 42-yard field goal. Ferrara missed, giving the ball back to Dasher with 1 minute 30 seconds remaining.
Dasher led the Blue Raiders on an eight-play, 73-yard drive. The key play was a 35-yard pass down the left sideline to wide receiver Chris McClover, who beat Chism before being brought down at the Maryland 10.
Chism, who started in place of the injured Nolan Carroll (broken leg), intercepted two passes earlier in the game but said that he was forced to slow up on that play because he felt his hamstring was going to give out.
A disastrous stretch of a little more than six minutes in the first half -- during which Maryland lost two fumbles and threw one interception -- helped put the Blue Raiders back in the game.
The game's tenor changed dramatically at the end of the first quarter, when Turner threw his second interception of the season. On third and 12, Turner passed over the middle to running back Davin Meggett, who bobbled the ball into the hands of free safety Derrick Crumpton at the Maryland 29.
Maryland forced Middle Tennessee into a fourth-and-inches decision from the 19. The Blue Raiders chose to go for it, only to get the first down when nose tackle A.J. Francis jumped offsides. Two players later, Dasher plunged into the end zone from three yards.
Things got worse on Maryland's first play of the ensuing drive, when Scott fumbled and Middle Tennessee right end Chris McCoy recovered at the Maryland 30. Wide receiver Desmond Gee next threw a 27-yard pass to wide receiver Malcolm Beyah, which set up Dasher's seven-yard touchdown pass to receiver Sancho McDonald.
"You can bring the New England Patriots in and they would lose if they fumbled" as many times as Maryland did, wide receiver Torrey Smith said.
Smith was one of Maryland's bright spots. He scored on receptions of 37 and 64 yards and finished with 165 receiving yards.
Expectations were low at Maryland this season because of inexperience -- 58 scholarship players with at least three years of eligibility remaining -- but Friedgen could not have imagined this slow of a learning curve.
"Anytime you lose to a team you are not supposed to two years in a row," linebacker Alex Wujciak said, "something has to change."