Though the glory days of his NFL career came in a Washington Redskins uniform, the man in the gray overcoat made no apologies for planting himself on Notre Dame’s sideline for Saturday’s game between the Fighting Irish and the flailing Maryland Terrapins.
A decade or so before leading the Redskins to victory in Super Bowl XVII, after all, Joe Theismann led Notre Dame to college football glory, passing for 4,411 yards en route to a 20-3-2 record as the Irish’s starting quarterback.
For Theismann and the throng of Notre Dame fans who outnumbered the Terrapins faithful roughly two-to-one among the 70,251 at FedEx Field, Saturday’s nationally televised game was a feel-good reunion, with the Irish rolling to a 45-21 victory that boosted their record to 7-3.
But for Maryland supporters, the Terps’ sixth consecutive defeat offered no sign that the precipitous slide under first-year Coach Randy Edsall, whose team is now 2-8, will end anytime soon.
Maryland’s offense misfired woefully, punting on its first four drives. And the defense was manhandled by Notre Dame’s running game, which piled up 212 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns in a victory that was never in doubt.
Theismann, 62, took it all in through myriad lenses — that of a proud Irish alum (as well as father of a 2000 Notre Dame graduate), a College Football Hall of Famer, an NFL analyst and a longtime Washington area resident who would love to see Maryland football succeed.
What he saw Saturday, he said during a third-quarter conversation, was a Maryland team in the throes of transitioning to a new coach and a new system. And “growing pains,” as he put it, are invariably part of the process.
“We see it at the professional level; you see it at the college level,” Theismann said, asked how Maryland’s promising offense could have regressed so much from last season. “No matter how well a guy did before, you change things, and there’s a little bit of hesitation.”
Minutes later, Maryland quarterback Danny O’Brien was intercepted by Notre Dame’s Lo Wood, who ran it back 57 yards for a touchdown that extended the Irish lead to 38-7.
“As we speak!” Theismann brayed, the interception underscoring his point. O’Brien “wanted to go left; he turned around and went right. The ball was high; it got away from him. Notre Dame was in a zone defense, and you wind up with a gift!”
What Theismann insisted he didn’t see was a Maryland team that had quit on its coach or his system, on either side of the ball, despite reports of deep-seated disillusion with Edsall’s methods in some corners of the locker room.
“I see guys wanting to play football,” Theismann said. “As a coach, a lot of times when you inherit people, they may not like certain things that are going on.”
But it’s the coach’s job, he added, to convince players to buy in and then identify a gem or two among the bunch.
Notre Dame’s gems were obvious Saturday: running back Jonas Gray, who rushed for 136 yards and his 10th and 11th touchdowns of the season, and 6-foot-2 senior wideout Michael Floyd, who occupied two defenders much of the game and still reeled in nine catches, including a 19-yard touchdown pass.
“Maryland needs to find a couple guys like that — a couple guys that people fear,” Theismann said. “Right now, nobody fears anybody on the Maryland team.”
And if Theismann were running the team, not surprisingly, he’d settle on one starting quarterback rather than the medley Edsall has employed of late.
“I’ve never been big fan of the dual-quarterback situation because it’s hard to get in any kind of rhythm,” he said, noting at least three drops of well-thrown balls by O’Brien that could have sustained sputtering drives.
“This is not a game of thinking,” Theismann said. “This is a game of reaction. And if you have to take time to process information, it takes away from your ability to react and act.”