The buses were winding away from the Washington Redskins’ practice facility in Ashburn earlier this month, a rainy-day indoor workout behind the Maryland football team, when linebacker Matt Robinson and his classmates started thinking about how much they had changed. More than three years had passed since they arrived in College Park, which meant three years of coaching upheaval, losing seasons and enough injuries to book a hospital wing. But as the Terrapins prepared for Friday’s Military Bowl against Marshall, they could finally clutch a tangible form of progress.
“It’s moving in the right direction,” said Robinson, a junior.
Under Coach Randy Edsall, December used to bring relaxation after final examinations, flights home to visit family and thoughts of another disappointing season. In 2011, Maryland went 2-10. In 2012, it was 4-8. Both years ended with long, demoralizing losing streaks. Some players transferred, at odds with the regime change and the discipline measures that coincided with it. Others stuck around, insistent things would change, even though in the moment it was hard to see when or how.
In many ways, Edsall and the Terps needed this season. They went 7-5, topping the aggregate win total during the coach’s first two years in College Park, and despite more injuries to several key players, they finished with two wins in the final three games to earn bowl eligibility. Perhaps Maryland could have gone somewhere bigger than the Military Bowl, the last postseason game in the ACC pecking order. Simply playing this month, however, and not watching on television is viewed as an important step.
“Everyone wants to go to the biggest, best bowl they can,” tight end Dave Stinebaugh said. “But at the end of the day, going to a bowl in general is a unique opportunity. Not everyone gets to go to one. Based off our past, it’s rare to get to a bowl game. Whatever game you get to is special.”
Said senior quarterback C.J. Brown: “It’s a lot better than sitting at home saying what if, shoulda, woulda, coulda, that could have been us.”
So the Terps reveled in the experience. They received PlayStation 4s as their bowl gifts and immediately tweeted pictures. They took tours of the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument and attended a late-night hypnotist show, where two players pretend danced like ballerinas and another pretended to be a ninja. They still held practice in College Park, a short drive north from the team hotel in downtown D.C., but even some players who grew up here were experiencing the city’s tourist side for the first time.
Reminders of the season’s struggles still cast a shadow. Leading receiver Stefon Diggs continues to hobble on crutches, still recovering from a broken leg suffered against Wake Forest. Wide receiver Deon Long (broken leg) and cornerback Dexter McDougle (fractured shoulder socket) are also healing. But the cast of unknowns who succeeded them, Edsall said, represents the team’s proudest accomplishment during a season that threatened to spiral down the drain after consecutive losses to Wake Forest, Clemson and Syracuse.
“We had to believe in ourselves,” Edsall said. “If somebody goes down, the person going in is going to step in and do the job. . . . It’s a team. It’s not one or two guys. The confidence factor was the biggest thing.”
At Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Friday, both sides can double their 2012 win totals. Marshall (9-4) comes armed with the nation’s seventh-best scoring offense and is looking for its first 10-win season since 2002. Maryland, meanwhile, has reached its first bowl game since 2010, months before Edsall arrived, when Ralph Friedgen had just been fired and no one knew what would come next.
“It’s definitely different,” Stinebaugh said. “We haven’t been in a bowl situation in over three years. It’s kind of new at the same time because we haven’t been here in a while. Lifting, practice, all that stuff, it’s nice to do instead of sitting on your couch getting fat.”