By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; D04
Maryland's players have no shortage of motivation as they prepare for what they say is the program's most significant home game in years.
They are treating Saturday night's game against Florida State as the first step in a four-game single-elimination tournament that includes a bowl game. If they beat the Seminoles and then North Carolina State the following week, the Terrapins will earn a berth in the ACC title game. But should they lose to Florida State, Maryland (7-3, 4-2 ACC) can expect to play in a less prestigious bowl game.
"We still have a lot to prove," wide receiver Torrey Smith said.
For the Terrapins' upperclassmen, there is also the memory of a cold November night at Byrd Stadium two seasons ago, when the Seminoles throttled Maryland, 37-3, costing the Terrapins a chance at the ACC Atlantic Division title. That Maryland team - composed of 30 seniors - came out flat, and not for the first time that season. This Maryland team, still relatively inexperienced, has been improving almost every week.
"We're a different team," linebacker Adrian Moten said. "We're much different team than we were two years ago."
Many Maryland players also have a sour memory of last season's game against Florida State, when the Terrapins let a victory slip away during the final moments of a 29-26 loss. One of the team's goals this season has been to beat every team that beat Maryland last season. The Terrapins have already beaten four teams - Duke, Wake Forest, Boston College and Virginia - that defeated them last season, with two others, Florida State and North Carolina State, remaining on the schedule.
"That's been a battle cry for us all year," Coach Ralph Friedgen said.
As Smith said, this particular Maryland team has never lost to Florida State, emphasizing how different the Terrapins are this season. The biggest reason for Maryland's turnaround has been the improvement seen in turnover margin. Maryland ranks third nationally in turnover margin; last season, it finished 97th.
What's more, the Terrapins are tied for 30th in scoring defense (20.7 points per game); last season, they finished 100th (31.25 points per game). And while the offensive line remains inexperienced and injury-riddled this season, the Terrapins are tied for 44th in sacks allowed after finishing 110th in that category last season.
The other significant difference: the emergence of redshirt freshman quarterback Danny O'Brien, a four-time ACC rookie of the week. O'Brien has already set program freshman records for completions (121), passing yards (1,571) and touchdown passes (16). Perhaps the most impressive attribute has been his poise, a trait Friedgen said calms teammates in the huddle and coaches on the sideline.
"He is growing at a very rapid rate right now," Friedgen said.
Florida State also will have a different starting quarterback for this year's matchup. Christian Ponder, who missed last season's Maryland game, is expected to start Saturday after sitting out last weekend's game against Clemson with an elbow injury.
E.J. Manuel, who led the Seminoles to the win over Maryland last season, played well against Clemson last week, leading the Seminoles on two fourth-quarter scoring drives in a 16-13 victory. In his first start of the season, Manuel was named ACC offensive back of the week after completing 15 of 24 passes for 210 yards and leading the Seminoles in rushing with a career-high 71 yards on 15 carries.
Maryland is preparing for both quarterbacks to play.
"They have two good quarterbacks," Moten said.Putting it on the line
One game after perhaps their best game of the season, Maryland's relatively inexperienced and shuffled offensive line now confronts one of its biggest challenges of the season: protecting O'Brien against a Florida State defense that leads the nation in sacks per game (3.9).
While conceding that it's not always pretty, Friedgen said the linemen have been "fighting [their] butts off." But 14 Seminoles enter Saturday's game with a sack, including Brandon Jenkins (second in the ACC with 10) and Markus White (fifth with 6.5), defensive ends who rank among conference leaders.
O'Brien compared Florida State's athletic pass rushers to those at Miami and Clemson. As Friedgen aptly said, "They are a different breed of cat."