For Maryland football, seven plays defined bounce-back season

A large, enthusiastic crowd greeted Maryland as it faced Florida State in College Park. (Photo by Tracy A Woodward/The Washington Post)
A large, enthusiastic crowd greeted Maryland as it faced Florida State in College Park. (Photo by Tracy A Woodward/The Washington Post)
By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 27, 2010; 2:40 AM

Throughout the summer, Maryland's regular season finale against North Carolina State figured to be fraught with uncertainty: Would it be the final game of Coach Ralph Friedgen's tenure? Would Maryland need to win to become bowl eligible?

That both questions have already been answered - Friedgen will return and the Terrapins (7-4, 4-3 ACC) will play in their seventh bowl game in his 10 years - is a testament to the incremental growth of a team that Friedgen watched improve each week, win or lose.

"It builds your confidence each and every week when that happens," Friedgen said.

And now, 12 games later, the players who entered the season fresh off the first 10-loss season in program history and were predicted to finish last in the ACC's Atlantic Division improbably will take the field Saturday as a capable, competent team. From game-saving plays to late-game heartache to a heart-wrenching off-the-field accident, the contours of a resurgent season in College Park have been shaped by seven defining moments.

This season's tenor was set in a campus armory during a fierce winter. After a season in which the Terrapins lost 14 fumbles - giving away winnable games - Friedgen wanted players to protect the ball as if it were a newborn.

Because NCAA rules prohibited the use of footballs during winter workouts, he dispatched team managers to bunch up and wrap tape around 12-inch towels. During each workout, skill-position players cradled scrunched-up towels as they ran, jumped and zigzagged through agility drills, all the while fearful of letting the cloth hit the ground. "It is a passion with me," Friedgen said. "You hold onto the football, you win games."

The routine was symbolic, but the message was well received. The Terrapins continue to emphasize ball security in practice drills - now with a football - and reap rewards. Through 11 games, Maryland has lost just four fumbles, two of which came in Saturday's loss to Florida State.

Tate emerges

Coaches had long waited for Kenny Tate's dominance and physical play to translate from practice to games. Then came Labor Day against Navy. All Tate did was make 12 tackles, force two fumbles and, in what ranks among the most memorable and meaningful plays of Maryland's season, stuff Midshipmen quarterback Ricky Dobbs at the 1 on fourth down with 34 seconds remaining.

The free safety earned Bronko Nagurski national player of the week honors and offered a primer for his breakout season. A 6-foot-4, 220-pound combination of size and speed, Tate has been the face of the defense, leading the team in solo tackles (51) and leading the ACC with four forced fumbles this season. He is the ACC's only player who ranks among the top 10 in tackles, interceptions and forced fumbles.

"Unbelievable," said Don Brown, Maryland's defensive coordinator. "Do you realize we have lined him up at virtually every position on the field?"

Tate has positioned himself at defensive tackle and end, middle and outside linebacker, and multiple positions in the secondary. Nose tackle A.J. Francis said affectionately: "He just looks like the big, violent kid in Pop Warner who picks on the smaller kids. He is just a bully."

O'Brien's second debut

Danny O'Brien yearned for a second chance at a first impression after fumbling on the first snap of his college career against Navy. And fans were eagerly awaiting the quarterback whom offensive coordinator James Franklin deemed "special" and Friedgen said possessed "extraordinary" poise for a redshirt freshman.

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