Danny O'Brien shines in first start as Maryland football beats Florida International, 42-28

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 25, 2010; 11:29 PM

The smallest home crowd ever to watch a Ralph Friedgen-coached team play may have seen a glimmer of hope for a struggling program on Saturday: the potential start of the Danny O'Brien era.

An uneven team performance and excruciatingly long day for the defense in a 42-28 victory over Florida International were overshadowed by the auspicious debut of the first freshman quarterback to start for the Terrapins since 1999. After playing as a backup during the first three games, the redshirt freshman started in place of injured Jamarr Robinson and displayed the poise his coaches have raved about for more than a year.

It was not merely that O'Brien completed 18 of 27 passes for 250 yards and placed two perfectly thrown balls that were reeled in for touchdown receptions, including a 68-yard score by wide receiver Torrey Smith. He also made sound decisions throughout, successfully picked up blitzes and, perhaps most important, avoided throwing an interception against a defense that had thrived on creating turnovers.

"He makes an argument to be the starter," offensive coordinator James Franklin said. "But we'll worry about that down the road."

That Maryland (3-1) even found a healthy quarterback to play was an accomplishment after an anxiety-filled week for coaches. Friedgen had said as recently as Wednesday that his two injury-riddled quarterbacks - Robinson (sore throwing shoulder) and O'Brien (high ankle sprain) - were "doing well" and were expected to play. But Friedgen and Franklin privately fretted over their predicament.

"Not a lot of sleep," Franklin said.

Both injuries appear to have been more serious early in the week than coaches publicly acknowledged at the time. As it turned out, the two quarterbacks who took the most reps in practice this week were Devin Burns, a true freshman whom Friedgen would prefer to redshirt, and Tony Logan, a wide receiver-punt returner who played quarterback in high school. Franklin said Burns took 80 percent of the quarterback reps this past week.

O'Brien said he was limited in practice Tuesday, but practiced Wednesday and Thursday and said his ankle improved by spending two hours a day in treatment that involved ice, vibration and laser procedures. Robinson did not practice all week and, Franklin said, was relegated to an "emergency backup" when he could not lift his arm before Saturday's game.

O'Brien, who said he was told Thursday that he would start, said his ankle is near 100 percent. But if he had aggravated it against a defense that amassed six sacks the previous week, would Friedgen really have turned to his punt returner, Logan? Friedgen answered the question with a nod that expressed more fear than anything.

Friedgen pulled a white Terps hat from his head, revealing a balding scalp and said, "That's why I look like this."

O'Brien had a strong performance - three touchdowns in his first four pass attempts - in relief of Robinson against division I-AA Morgan State on Sept. 11. But his two plays against I-A competition - a fumbled exchange against Navy and a sack against West Virginia - were less positive.

Because of O'Brien's inexperience, coaches wanted to emphasize the running game early Saturday. But the Terrapins gained just two rushing yards in the first quarter. It was O'Brien who got Maryland going by floating a pass to the back left corner of the end zone, where wide receiver LaQuan Williams hauled it in for a nine-yard touchdown reception early in the second quarter.

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