Stumbling Start Ignites Terps' Concerns

"I would have bet a million dollars on that last drive that we were going to win the game," Maryland's Chris Turner (10) said of Saturday's 32-31 loss. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post) (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
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By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 21, 2009

Those who watched Maryland struggle through its first two games of the season know that Saturday's 32-31 loss to Middle Tennessee at Byrd Stadium should not qualify as an upset of any consequence.

These Terrapins have battled injuries and inexperience and have adjusted poorly to a new defensive scheme. With a 1-2 record and the most difficult portions of the schedule still ahead, it is now clear that this season will be Coach Ralph Friedgen's most difficult challenge in his nine years as head coach.

"No doubt about it," he said.

Based on how the Terrapins have performed thus far, it would be an achievement for them to become bowl-eligible. To do so, Maryland must win five of its remaining nine games -- all against power-conference teams -- even though it has yet to beat a division I-A team this season.

More than that, Friedgen must keep the season from unraveling two weeks before Maryland's first ACC game. Friedgen's teams have notoriously started slow, but never before have his teams struggled to this extent in nonconference play.

Maryland looked overmatched against a national title contender (California), rallied to edge a division I-AA team (James Madison) in overtime, and lost for the second consecutive season to a Middle Tennessee team not even expected to compete for the Sun Belt Conference title.

Friedgen was visibly angry Saturday night and promised to get "real tough" on the team this week. He retreated from that sentiment to some extent Sunday, saying, "I'm an emotional guy" and that he is somewhat tolerant of youthful mistakes. But he later added that "it's come to a point where we need to grow up and get better."

Blame has been spread accordingly. Coaches have chided players for penalties, missed tackles and fumbles, while also pointing out their own shortcomings.

In just the first three weeks of the season, first-year defensive coordinator Don Brown has called himself a "grown man" who is accountable for the defense's poor play, and offensive coordinator James Franklin has accepted responsibility for the Middle Tennessee loss because of poor play-calling in the game's final minutes.

The Terrapins were expected to finish near the bottom of the ACC's Atlantic Division, but few anticipated they would look this befuddled in nonconference play. Out of 120 division I-A teams, Maryland ranks 111th in total defense, 107th in turnover margin and is tied for 110th in sacks allowed -- and it has only played one power-conference team so far.

Middle Tennessee is now responsible for the two worst losses in Friedgen's career. The Blue Raiders' 24-14 victory last season was more of an upset, but this year's loss could prove more damaging to the Terrapins.

It came at a Byrd Stadium where much of the upper deck was empty. And many of the fans that did show ended up serenading the Terrapins with boos throughout the game.

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