Coach Ron Vanderlinden awoke yesterday in a home still without electricity, four days after traces of Hurricane Floyd passed through the area, but to the cheery news that his Maryland football team had received enough votes to be ranked 31st in the Associated Press poll. He later slipped comfortably into the language all coaches use on such occasions, talking about focus and how winning takes care of polls, but also declared: "I'm surprised we're not in the top 25."
Those national forecasters--and more than a few loyal Maryland followers--who had predicted the Terrapins would not win more than one game are close to flabbergasted by the turnaround. From winning just twice in Vanderlinden's first season and three times last season, the Terrapins are unbeaten and have allowed only 10 points in three games.
How that has happened is not especially complicated to Vanderlinden. Last season, he said, Maryland could not pass well or defend well against the pass.
"We couldn't keep drives alive, weren't capable of making enough explosive plays to score enough points," Vanderlinden said. "On defense, we lost too many third-and-long situations. You can have the best system in the world, but if you can't cover and rush, you'll struggle."
So far, the Terrapins have solved half their problems on defense. With four strong starters and good depth in the secondary, Maryland can cover the pass. However, the pass rush too often has been close to nonexistent. And with the Terps next visiting elusive Joe Hamilton and No. 10 Georgia Tech on Sept. 30 in Atlanta, that's more than a little worrisome.
While Vanderlinden and his staff try to devise ways to contain Hamilton, he at least has confidence that cornerback Lewis Sanders and his buddies at linebacker and the secondary will continue to excel.
"That back seven runs very well," Vanderlinden said.
Sanders, who yesterday was named the Atlantic Coast Conference defensive player of the week, is the fastest of those players and, so far, the most productive. He has scored on a 98-yard kickoff return and a 28-yard fumble recovery. In each game, he has had an interception. But the other corner, Renard Cox, backup corner Bryn Boggs and safeties Shawn Forte and Rod Littles also have made up for whatever has been lacking from the linemen.
The corners are tall, each at least 6 feet, which will be important in ACC play that begins with Georgia Tech. The entire secondary, from seniors Cox and Boggs to sophomore Littles, has put to good use lessons learned while enduring some embarrassment.
Forte, for instance, was switched from offense to safety in the spring of 1997 and quickly suffered a broken leg that sidelined him for the entire season. By late last season, the Poughkeepsie, N.Y., native was making what Vanderlinden calls "awareness plays."
Two came against Duke. On one, Maryland sent Forte charging across the line of scrimmage on a blitz. But Duke had called what should have been an effective counter, a reverse. Forte saw what was happening, braked quickly and tackled the wide receiver for a loss. On another blitz, this time on a short-yardage situation, Forte nailed the runner for no gain.
All interceptions are nice, but the one Cox grabbed against West Virginia was important because it came at the Maryland 9-yard line with six-plus minutes left in the first quarter and kept West Virginia from scoring and gaining early momentum.
Boggs batted down a pass in the end zone on the game's final play against Temple to save Maryland's 6-0 lead. He enters the game when opponents use three wide receivers. Sanders moves to safety to replace Littles, and sophomore linebacker Aaron Thompson usually stays in the game. That way, Littles and Boggs are able to play to their respective strengths.
In Boggs's case, that would be covering. Until this season, he was not very physical.
"I told him he had to make the plays," Vanderlinden said. "He didn't have to kill [the ball carrier], but he had to put him on the ground. Bryn has been a real pleasant surprise."
The secondary also will be bolstered as Randall Jones, the starting quarterback most of last season, becomes acclimated to safety. Redshirt sophomore Tony Okanlawon, who started the final six games last season at corner, has recovered from a hamstring injury but has been unable to earn significant playing time. Also, starting safety Tony Jackson may soon recover from the broken ankle he suffered against Temple and play within three weeks.
On offense, redshirt freshman Calvin McCall gives Maryland the effective passing that Jones did not. The wide receivers dropped several passes against Temple, but Vanderlinden said they would improve. They have, and fullback Matt Kalapinski made difficult catches against Western Carolina and West Virginia. The one he had against the Mountaineers came on a full leap in the end zone.
Vanderlinden praised the players for their focus, but added: "The only way [Maryland's success] is going to continue is not to get caught up in relatives calling and students slapping you on the back. We've got to keep improving."