Maryland football players dismayed by dwindling home attendance

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By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 4:05 PM

Among the lowlights of Maryland's 42-28 victory over Florida International on Saturday was the sight of tens of thousands of empty seats inside Byrd Stadium for most of an unseasonably hot 84-degree afternoon, a snapshot that did not go unnoticed by Maryland coaches and players.

"It [stunk]," wide receiver Torrey Smith said of the attendance. "Hopefully fans will come back to Byrd for the ACC season. We appreciate the fans who were there and do support us."

The announced crowd of 33,254 at Byrd Stadium (capacity 54,000) on Saturday was the smallest home crowd in Coach Ralph Friedgen's 10 seasons at his alma mater. Worse, for most of the game, especially at the start and through most of the second half, the stadium looked less than half full.

The small turnout can be attributed to many factors, including a noon kickoff, a sun-baked afternoon and an unattractive opponent from the Sun Belt Conference. But school officials also have struggled to re-energize a fan base that has experienced four losing seasons the past six years, including last season's 2-10 debacle.

"The thing that upset me the most was that so many left at halftime," defensive lineman A.J. Francis said. "We have some great fans - we had 5,000 to 10,000 come to Boise, Idaho, to watch us play Nevada [in the 2008 Humanitarian Bowl] - but more than half of the student section left [Saturday]. FIU didn't have name appeal. But FIU was still a good team."

Fans have reacted to the program's struggles with their wallets. Season ticket sales have declined for five consecutive seasons - school officials saw a decline of about 17 percent at the start of this season. Two other recent home games - this season's home opener against Morgan State on Sept. 11 (40,099) and last season's finale against Boston College (35,042) - also rank among the lowest-attended home games during Friedgen's tenure.

When Maryland (3-1) opens its ACC season Saturday against Duke, Friedgen said, he expects a better showing because this year's team has been more successful in nonconference play. (But he noted that fans who stayed home Saturday "missed a good game.")

"The crowd, we keep winning, they'll be there," Friedgen said. "I can rationalize all I want - time of day, temperature - win this week, there will be more next week. Win the following week, there'll be more the following week. You've got to win. "

There is another factor that should make traffic to Byrd Stadium on Saturday a little more congested - an opposing school that Maryland fans love to hate.

"They will come out," Francis said. "No one around here likes Duke."

Chris Boyer, Maryland's senior associate athletic director for administration, said he expects about 40,000 fans on Saturday, projecting that the no-show number will be down because of the kickoff time and opponent, and that the student ticket number will increase by as much as 4,000.

Who will start at QB?

Friedgen is expected to officially name his starting quarterback by Thursday, even though signs continue to point to redshirt freshman Danny O'Brien making the second start of his career.

Friedgen said Jamarr Robinson, who started the first three games before injuring his throwing shoulder in the first half of the loss to West Virginia on Sept. 18, practiced Monday but was limited. Robinson is listed as "injured" on Maryland's depth chart.

Friedgen said Robinson's condition was better than at this point last week. And regardless of which player starts, both are expected to play because they offer complementary skill sets. Robinson is a more dangerous runner, while O'Brien, who earned ACC rookie of the week honors for his two-touchdown, no-interception performance against FIU, is the more advanced passer.

We must protect this ball

One of the biggest reasons why Maryland has a 3-1 record is because the Terrapins are committing fewer turnovers. After committing 24 turnovers last season, Maryland has turned over the ball just four times - two fumbles, two interceptions - in four games this season.

Ball security has become an obsession for Friedgen, who made players carry around bunched-up towels during winter workouts because NCAA rules prohibit them from carrying a football. They carried them throughout their workouts, fearful of letting the cloth hit the ground. The commitment continues in practice: The Terrapins start each practice with ball-security drills.

"We do it every day," Friedgen said. "If I see them getting lax, I'm on the coaches, I'm on [players]. I emphasized it before, but not like I am now. It is a passion with me right now. Hold onto the football, you win games."

In turnover margin, Maryland is tied for 10th nationally. Last season, the Terrapins were tied for 97th nationally.

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