Left tackle Brad Messina knew Maryland would be fine once nearly everyone stopped talking about him and the rest of the offensive line. And that's exactly what has happened for the unbeaten Terrapins.
"All that got emphasized after the Temple game [a 6-0 Maryland win] was how poorly the offensive line played," Messina said. "Then we won big [by a combined 84-10 over Western Carolina and West Virginia] and all that got played up was how great LaMont Jordan was running."
Messina said that with a smile. As a starter for three years, he knows that offensive linemen are among the first to be blamed in defeat and among the last to be praised in victory.
The twist about the post-Temple criticism was that much of it came from Coach Ron Vanderlinden, who publicly wondered whether his blockers were "nasty enough" and if senior right guard Jamie Wu was providing as much leadership as possible.
They have been very effective lately, in part because of the attitude adjustment Vanderlinden hoped would happen and because of cohesion that took place after much uncertainty before the season started. The next, and toughest, test will be Thursday night in Atlanta against No. 9 Georgia Tech.
"Deep down inside," said Wu, "we knew the Temple win wasn't acceptable to us. And I knew if they'd completed that [last-second pass in the end zone from the 2-yard line and won] it would have been my fault."
Injuries to Wu (back) and left guard Todd Wike (broken bone in right hand) during preseason drills were among the reasons for the early lack of consistency. In addition, there were a number of position switches in spring and preseason practices as the coaches tried to develop backups on a line that lost only right tackle John Feugill after last season.
With Wike returning as a starter after Temple, the offensive line has remained intact, if not entirely healthy. It includes senior co-captains Messina and Wu, sophomore Melvin Fowler at center and redshirt freshmen Wike and right tackle Matt Crawford.
Vanderlinden offered an assessment of each starter.
Messina (6 feet 5, 288 pounds): "Has all the tools to be one of the better tackles in the ACC. I'm still looking for him to be better because I have high expectations."
Wike (6-3, 265): "Lots of potential, but a long way away."
Fowler (6-3, 266): "Right now, beginning to be a good center" after being switched from defense less than two weeks before the first game last season and starting all 11 games.
Wu (6-2, 285): "Last week [when he put 12 West Virginia defenders on the ground] was his best game. He's feeling better--and I like what I'm seeing."
Crawford (6-6, 295): "Tons of potential."
Like Fowler, Wike also has switched positions. He was recruited as a tight end and has played center. He has gotten more comfortable maneuvering with the massive cast necessary to protect his hand. Late in the third quarter against West Virginia, he broke his nose when the part of his helmet that protects his forehead was pushed against it.
"It doesn't affect my breathing, so we won't do anything until after the season," Wike said. "Other than those two broken bones, I'm fine."
Fowler became effective at center more quickly than he imagined. Because he barks out blocking assignments just before snapping the ball, a center needs to be able to quickly recognize defensive sets--and Fowler had not played the position since junior high.
With Fowler's success in mind, the coaches have switched sophomore backup defensive lineman Charles Hill to backup center. Hill started the final three games of last season on the defensive line and played there a lot against West Virginia even though he worked exclusively behind Fowler all week in practice.
For Hill to play both offense and defense would be an unusual double, but Vanderlinden said Hill again would play only on defense against Georgia Tech.
As Hill now knows, Maryland keeps a statistic for offensive linemen called knockdowns. Getting one requires either flattening someone or, because the offense uses so many option plays, cutting the legs out from under a linebacker near the line of scrimmage, where that is permitted. Each lineman is expected to get five knockdowns a game.
"I figure I can double that, so I try to average 10," said Wu. "I have 33 now."
At the end of the first serious practice after the Temple game, no player could have looked more dispirited than Wu. His back had flared up and he declined an interview request, saying: "I haven't done anything to deserve it."
When Wu was told his comments would not be part of a flattering story, as he expected, but in response to Vanderlinden's criticism, he said the coach was right but did not elaborate.
He has recovered nicely from that setback, as have the other blockers.
"As a unit," Wu said, "we're starting to feel confident, that we can play with the top teams in the country. It's fun."
Terrapins Note: Jordan practiced in full pads yesterday but not at full speed because of what he called "a little tweak" in his hamstring. "It's basically something I've been playing with all season," he added. "I'll be fine Thursday." Freshman Bruce Perry took about twice as many snaps as Jordan, who has rushed for 322 yards and scored four touchdowns in his last two games.