Maryland's season opener against highly ranked Penn State was televised locally, and many of the students in College Park were shocked by what they saw. After the Terrapins had scored on touchdown passes of 50 and 60 yards, students began shouting out of their dorm windows, back and forth across the quad, telling others to turn on the game.
The offense that new Coach Bobby Ross brought with him to Maryland has turned on a lot of people, even the players.
"Now the defensive players actually stand up and watch the offense," former Terrapin quarterback Brent Dewitz said yesterday. "Before, the defense would always sit down so they would be ready to go back in after three plays."
Ross was hired in January, replacing Jerry Claiborne, whose conservative offense had turned off many people over the previous 10 years. On his first day at work, Ross promised an exciting and balanced offense.
He has kept that promise.
The Terrapins (2-2) have scored five touchdowns rushing and five passing. They have gained 890 yards passing and 680 rushing. In the first two games, against Penn State and West Virginia, Maryland passed 31 times on first down and ran 29 times.
Eight players have four or more receptions. Last week, in a 26-3 rout of Syracuse, quarterback Boomer Esiason passed to nine receivers. "It keeps the receivers fresh and excited because everybody knows he'll get a chance," said Russell Davis, who leads with 17 receptions, four for touchdowns.
"Not only do we want to have balance between run and pass, but we want to have balance as it relates to the personnel and as it relates to down and distance," Ross said.
Ross was formerly the running backs coach with the Kansas City Chiefs of the National Football League. Having served as an assistant under Claiborne in 1972, Ross was once conservative himself, but drastically changed his thinking during his years in the NFL.
"I learned that unless you're considerably better than a team, you just can't line up and run a sustained drive and be successful. I did a study of the the teams which had balanced offenses at the time -- Dallas and New England were among them -- and it wasn't a coincidence that they were, statistically, usually the best offenses."
Ross and his assistants have constructed an offense that has what Ross calls a smattering of everything. "Going into Saturday's game (against Indiana State)," he said, "we've got 16 passes we can throw, off the drop-back alone."
Under Claiborne, Maryland quarterbacks very rarely passed from drop-back formations. They passed almost exclusively from sprint-out patterns.
Fortunately for Ross, he found most of the players could adapt quickly to the mass changes.
Ross' playbook has at least 40 standard formations (from the right and left sides) not including motion formations. It is not a copy of NFL offenses, but does contain many pro elements.
"We've got just about every conceivable thing you can do with an offense," Ross said. "A lot of colleges have quite a bit of multiplicity. We probably move our (running) backs around more than others."
There is an even balance among the running backs. After tailback Willie Joyner, who leads the team with 283 yards in three games, four backs have gained between 66 and 80 yards.
"Unpredictability doesn't let us lock ourselves into anything," said Ross, "and as a result it doesn't let opposing defenses lock into any one facet of our offense. The key is flexibility. We can add or revise plays without too much trouble."
Ross even added a position to his offense last week before the Syracuse game. On Monday he elevated freshman Rick Badanjek to the starting fullback spot and created a new position -- a combination running back/receiver -- for senior John Nash, who had been the starting fullback. Nash caught a 43-yard touchdown pass from Esiason in the second quarter.
Joe Krivak, who coaches the quarterbacks and receivers, calls the plays from the press box, with little direct input from Ross. Krivak sends the play (by headset) to offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen who gives the play, usually to a wide receiver, who runs the play in to Esiason.
"Sometimes I look up to the press box and I can see Coach Krivak going over all those plays," Esiason said. "I wonder if he'll ever just flip a coin. At first, I was shocked at some of the plays he sent in. But I learned after that first game (at Penn State) that we're capable of the big play."
"It's not just, 'Air it up and then if that doesn't work, go back to sweep left, sweep right,' " said Dewitz. "A quarterback can feel like a real quarterback now."
Dewitz quit football this year after a serious knee injury last season.
The offense is by no means perfect. Ross is unhappy that the Terrapins have had to settle for field goals too many times after imaginative plays have moved them into scoring position. Maryland lost to Penn State and West Virginia largely because of turnovers, but the Terrapins have committed only one turnover in the last two games.
"It's been successful to a degree," Ross said. "But I'm reasonably pleased. We should have a higher percentage of pass completions (Esiason has completed 55 percent). But we could go the rest of our lives and find things wrong. We'll just try to maintain our unpredictability."
Said Esiason: "It's great when you don't have to do anything you don't want to."
Cornerback Gil Hoffman suffered a twisted right ankle and slightly sprained knee in practice yesterday and will miss Saturday's game against Indiana State. He is expected to be back early next week.