Before the season began, the Maryland football team gathered to review a schedule that was neatly sectioned into thirds. They talked about the three four-game seasons, separated by two bye weeks, and began to view the entire campaign in that manner.
“I don’t think our schedule could have been constructed any better than what it was,” Coach Randy Edsall said.
After four easy nonconference victories, the Terrapins greeted their first bye week in late September with open arms, an opportunity to regroup before the ACC grind. But everything changed when the second quartet of games began with a 63-0 pounding at Florida State on Oct. 5. Injuries turned backups into starters. Bowl eligibility remained elusive. Maryland went 1-3 and limped into last weekend’s second bye week sorely needing a reset button.
“It gets us rejuvenated, especially with all the injuries we’ve had,” defensive lineman Zeke Riser said. “It definitely gave us a much-needed break.”
On Saturday, the Terps (5-3, 1-3) will again go for their sixth win, which would match Edsall’s combined victory total over his first two seasons in College Park and qualify Maryland for the postseason for the first time since 2010. Their opponent: An equally desperate Syracuse team that’s also grasping for bowl eligibility and is fresh off a 13-0 win over Wake Forest.
Quarterback C.J. Brown (trunk), running back Brandon Ross (shoulder), tight end Dave Stinebaugh (knee), safety Anthony Nixon (toe) and inside linebacker L.A. Goree (back) all missed Maryland’s last game, a 40-27 loss to Clemson on Oct. 26. But after healing over the bye week, all of those starters are expected to suit up when the Orange visits Byrd Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
“A fresh start is a fresh start,” Terrapins defensive coordinator Brian Stewart said. “I think the kids got a chance to watch a little football and see how close or how far away they really are and can be. That’s refreshing for them, now they’ve got a chance to go out and start anew. Anytime you get any kind of break, that’s good.”
Psychologically, the Terps said, the season’s structure has allowed a young, roughed-up team to relax, heal, return home to see families, study film and, most importantly, move past consecutive defeats. Riser went on lockdown in his room and focused on Syracuse, scrolling through plays on his team-issued iPad. Stewart watched his 12-year-old daughter make an elite youth volleyball team, hit the recruiting trail and then began trying to solve the problems that ail Maryland’s defense, which has allowed an average of 491.5 yards over its four ACC games.
“You don’t forget it,” Brown said. “But it definitely helps you step back and look at yourself in the mirror, think about how are we going to fix it. We’ve still got four games left in the year. We can still write our own story, right our own ship. We plan on doing that.”
Last Saturday, before the Orange (4-4, 2-2) shut out the Demon Deacons at the Carrier Dome, Edsall attended a pregame ceremony for his wife, Eileen, a four-year letter winner in two sports at Syracuse, where they met. But because NCAA rules prohibit advance scouting, the family was briskly escorted from the Carrier Dome before warmups began. Even in celebration, Edsall was reminded of the task ahead.
“It’s always a place that will have a special place for me, and all the friends I have from there, teammates and other people,” Edsall said. “The good thing is I think I’ve played them seven times and been an assistant when we played there. You just worry about what you got to control in terms of getting ready to play the game this week.”
All four of Maryland’s remaining games — Syracuse, at Virginia Tech, Boston College, at North Carolina State — could be seen as winnable, those opponents sporting a combined conference record of 7-12. With a victory Saturday, the final third begins on a high note. Fall to the Orange, and the Terrapins risk veering even further off course.