Compared with last season, when the Maryland football team recorded only 20 takeaways, the Terrapins were turnover-producing machines over their first four games this season, forcing 15 turnovers.
Since then? Zero.
“We practice it every day just like we were in the first four games, we just haven’t gotten any in the last two,” Coach Randy Edsall said during his weekly Sunday teleconference. “When the ball’s coming out of the hands of the quarterback quicker, when you get pressure you make them throw when they want to, or you strip some balls. We’ll keep doing the things we do.”
Indeed, better competition has been a factor. Maryland feasted on Florida International, Old Dominion, Connecticut and West Virginia, four teams with three combined wins against Football Bowl Subdivision teams this season and an aggregate turnover margin of minus-one.
Florida State, however, ranks among the top 25 teams nationally in turnover margin (plus-four) and Virginia quarterback David Watford delivered what Coach Mike London later called “his best game to date” on Saturday at Byrd Stadium. But with a pass rush depleted by injury and a bend-but-not-break defense showing up against the Cavaliers, the Terps’ takeaway rate seems to have plateaued.
“Sometimes people take care of the ball, but you have to get pressure to get errant throws, I thought the quarterback from Virginia played a much better game from what we had seen from film on him,” Edsall said.
More concerning to the third-year coach, whose teams have combined for a turnover margin of minus-6? The giveaways his players have burped up this entire season. In six games, Maryland has fumbled 16 times and lost 10, on pace for one more (32) than its mark last season (31 fumbles, 18 lost). Even worse, the problem has shown little sign of subsiding.
Against the Cavaliers, true freshman Will Likely muffed the first punt he returned, giving Virginia possession deep in Maryland territory; backup quarterback Caleb Rowe failed to secure the football in the pocket and had it tapped away from his throwing hand; and running back Joe Riddle allowed a punt to barely graze his jersey.
“None of them really should have ever occurred,” Edsall said. “We got people who can make plays. Caleb’s got to understand the situation, throw the ball away, you’re in field goal range, then the other one [on Riddle’s miscue], Will’s got to get up and try to catch the ball. We’re letting too many balls hit the ground. Some are short punts, but let them hit you and it’s interference. I think all those things are correctable and I wouldn’t expect those things to happen again.”
All three were correctable, in fact. When quarterback C.J. Brown likely returns from his concussion on Saturday at Wake Forest, Rowe will go back to pre-snap signaling duties on the sidelines. The third turnover, which again allowed the Cavs to take over in Terps territory, ultimately resulting in the go-ahead field goal, derived more from a freak bounce and a questionable replay review than anything else.
As for Likely’s error, punt returns have suddenly become a dubious proposition for Maryland. Stefon Diggs, who fielded 22 punts for 221 total yards during his true freshman season, has returned two punts for minus-one yard this season, both against West Virginia. Whether Edsall wants to protect his prized playmaker from injury, he won’t say. And while Likely has generated sparks before, once leading the ACC in kick return average, the cornerback has brought back just five punts for 31 yards this season. For reference, the Terps have fumbled five times in six games on returns.
After Maryland held Virginia to a field goal following Likely’s gaffe, he jogged off the field and talked with Edsall. Punter Alec Vozenilek was booting into the wind, Edsall said, and generated strong hang time. Likely’s heels touched the 10-yard line, so he simply should have signaled for a fair catch.
“Just focusing on catching the ball,” Edsall said. “We get the possession back. What he tried to do was catch the ball and make someone miss, but the guy’s right there on him. To me it should have been a fair catch, and that’s exactly what I talked to him about.”