TALLAHASSEE — The immediate question that will hover over Maryland this week is a familiar one: Do the struggling Terrapins have another quarterback controversy on their hands after backup Danny O’Brien replaced banged-up starter C.J. Brown in the third quarter Saturday, providing an offensive spark in a 41-16 loss to Florida State?
But the larger question is whether any further tinkering at quarterback can salvage a season that has gone awry under Coach Randy Edsall, who has as many losses through the first seven games of his tenure as former Coach Ralph Friedgen had in his first two seasons combined.
Florida State knocked Brown out of the game with a third-quarter helmet-to-helmet hit and all but knocked the Terrapins (2-5, 1-3) out of the ACC title race. Edsall, who has said this is not a rebuilding season, praised his team’s incremental improvement in recent weeks while also lamenting a rash of injuries that has forced several key performers to miss multiple games.
Edsall also acknowledged a disparity between Maryland and its most recent opponents.
“We just don’t match up with the speed and athleticism of Clemson and Florida State,” Edsall said. “That is what we are going to have to do from a recruiting standpoint.”
When then asked whether he had enough talent at Maryland to win to his satisfaction, Edsall said: “Yeah, we can win. And we are going to win. I have no doubt about that. We are going to win. It is going to get done. I am confident of it. The players are confident of it. The coaches are confident of it. We are going to get it done.”
Maryland needs to win four of its final five regular season games to become bowl eligible, and its only remaining home games will be played the next two weeks against Boston College and Virginia. Asked if he still has reason to believe his team can reach a bowl game, Edsall said: “Yes. I think we can win every game.”
O’Brien, who in preseason camp said the goal was “ACC title or bust,” said the team’s season has been “disappointing — flat-out. We have underachieved this season and we know that.”
Edsall said he will make a game-time decision on his starting quarterback next week. Brown, who ignited the offense by running for 286 yards in the previous two games, was bottled up by an athletic Florida State defense that Edsall called probably the best his team has faced this season. His longest run was nine yards, and he finished with a net zero yards because he was sacked four times.
“We knew exactly what we were going to get with him,” Florida State linebacker Vince Williams said. “We focused and worked our game plan around that.”
Linebacker Telvin Smith succinctly said, “He felt us.”
That was the case early in the third quarter, when Brown ran through the middle. Linebacker Nigel Bradham barreled into Brown’s helmet with the crown of his helmet, earning a 15-yard penalty and leaving Brown woozy.
Brown went down to one knee on the field to try to collect himself. He then retreated to the locker room, where, he and Edsall later said, Brown passed all requisite medical tests and was cleared to return to the game.
But Edsall stayed with O’Brien, who had been benched in the second quarter of the Oct. 8 game at Georgia Tech. On Saturday, O’Brien authored some of his team’s best moments: a 69-yard completion to wide receiver Quintin McCree — Maryland’s longest passing play of the year — and O’Brien’s subsequent five-yard touchdown run.
With the game’s outcome long decided, O’Brien also engineered a touchdown-scoring drive in the final minute, capped by a 15-yard touchdown pass to freshman Marcus Leak. O’Brien completed 9 of 18 passes for 180 yards. He was sacked twice.
“When it was a two-score game and Danny O’Brien is in the game . . .and the ball is in his hands, I am going to tell you anything can happen,” Florida State Coach Jimbo Fisher said.
It has been a challenging few weeks for O’Brien, who entered the season as one of the nation’s best young quarterbacks but found himself benched midway through the season after not performing as well as he did last season.
“They were difficult,” O’Brien said of the last couple weeks. “You do a lot of soul-searching when you don’t play. That kind of adversity had not really set in for me in my young career in that fashion. But when C.J. is in the game, he knows that I am his No. 1 fan and will be supporting him and vice versa. We have a great relationship. We keep each other up, because only one guy can be in there at a time.”
Small encouraging signs by the offense the past two weeks have been offset by the performance of an injury-depleted defense that was again without two of its best players, linebackers Demetrius Hartsfield and Kenny Tate, who were sidelined with undisclosed injuries.
Maryland allowed 482 total yards one week after giving up 576 to Clemson. In fact, in all five of Maryland’s losses this season, the Terrapins have surrendered a combined 1.35 miles — yes, miles — in yardage.
“We have to coach them better,” Edsall said of his team as a whole. “Kids have to do their part. The thing is, you take a look, there are some positive things out there. We’re just not doing enough positive things against these type of teams we have just played the last two weeks with their speed and athleticism.”