By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 8, 2009
Some Maryland football fans called the decision gutsy and brave, while others branded it desperate and reckless. And even Ralph Friedgen, the coach who decided to go for it on fourth and inches from the Terrapins 29-yard line late in Saturday's 24-21 victory over Clemson, later acknowledged it was unwise.
However one wishes to characterize the play that occurred with 6 minutes 2 seconds remaining and Maryland clinging to a three-point lead, the most questionable snap of Maryland's season has had an unintended consequence: It has served as the strongest show of confidence in an offense -- especially an offensive line -- that has been criticized for weeks.
Even though the play failed -- quarterback Chris Turner could not gain six inches on a sneak -- Friedgen's audacious decision sent players a clear message: "That he believes in us," running back Davin Meggett said. "That's great. It makes me feel better and lets us know that he has not lost faith in us. He is still with us. That is important, real important."
For weeks, as Maryland's defense has gradually improved, a turnover-prone offense that could neither run the ball consistently nor keep its increasingly banged-up quarterback upright for four quarters has been cited as a prime reason why the Terrapins got off to their worst start in Friedgen's nine-year tenure.
Friedgen had worried about young players' confidence because they were not seeing rewards for their hard work in practice. The offensive line, predicted to be one of the ACC's worst entering the season, has rotated in two former walk-ons (Andrew Gonnella and Paul Pinegar) and a freshman (Bennett Fulper) and watched hulking left tackle Bruce Campbell go down with injuries to his toe and knee.
Yet when Maryland faced a critical decision Saturday, Friedgen listened to recommendations from offensive coordinator James Franklin, defensive coordinator Don Brown and his players, and he wavered before deciding the offensive line could indeed stand up to Clemson's athletic defensive front and help the Terrapins get six inches.
"It means a lot," Turner said. "A few weeks ago, he may not have gone for it, especially against a team like Clemson that was getting so much push up front. There really were mismatches, frankly. Hopefully it sends the message to our offensive line that the coaches do trust them and that we are taking that next step."
Franklin said there could be long-term benefits from exhibiting such confidence in a unit, and that the coaches' aggressive mind-set will yield aggressive play.
"There is a time and a place when you have to say, 'I believe in you guys and we are going to win this game,' " Franklin said. "We are not going to play not to lose. We are going to be aggressive and are going to call the game that way, coach the game that way and we want you to play that way. I think players feed off that."
In addition to showing an aggressive approach, though, it is also important how that message is transferred from coaches to players. Tentativeness among coaches, Franklin said, only breeds tentativeness among players on the field.
"It is no different when you step into the huddle and say, 'We are going for it here!' " Franklin said. "You can't go into the huddle and say, 'I don't know, guys, what do you think?' It is like Ralph turning to the kicker and saying, 'Can you make this field goal' and him going, 'Well, um, I don't know.' If the guy says, 'Yeah, I will make it,' you feel better."
In the coming weeks, players feel they can improve in several offensive areas. Meggett led Maryland with just 27 rushing yards against Clemson. The entire Maryland team had 28 rushing yards in a 34-13 loss to Rutgers on Sept. 26. Overall, the Terrapins rank 100th nationally in rushing offense, 115th in sacks allowed and 115th in turnover margin.
Players feel they are better than those numbers suggest, and are gradually making improvements as a young offensive line gains experience, finds a comfort level and builds off the Clemson experience.
"I wonder who are the people criticizing us -- the media," Meggett said. "They are not in our huddle. They say we are this bad or are not doing this. They criticize [Friedgen's] decision-making. I just think the coaches know us a little better. If the coaches are criticizing us, then maybe we should pay attention to it. But if the coaches are supporting us, just like coach did when he went for it, then I think we are in good shape."
Wide receiver Torrey Smith, one of the few bright spots offensively this season for Maryland, said the offensive line took a significant step forward in the Clemson game against the most athletic defensive line he has seen, adding: "You won't see other defensive ends in the whole country like Da'Quan Bowers and Ricky Sapp. And the O-line definitely held up and held their own."
Franklin also said the offensive line is incrementally improving, which is critical because a team can have the "best wideouts, the best quarterbacks, the best scheme, the best running back in the country, [and] if there is not a hole, they are not going to get any yards, unless they are just phenomenal -- Barry Sanders playing for Detroit all those years."
While the fourth-down play failed against Clemson, players believe the mere decision to go for it has fostered confidence that will pay dividends in the remaining seven games.
"It was a huge show of confidence by coaches," Pinegar said. "It was a test of mettle."
Some of that self-assurance is already apparent. When a reporter reminded Meggett that few coaches probably would have gone for the first down in the same situation Saturday, Meggett cut the sentence off with two words: