Maryland’s football players act like they’ve been here before, even if hints of humility still linger from last season’s 2-10 record. They insist on ignoring the press clippings, though doing so comes easy when most stories reference a disastrous 2011 campaign they’d rather forget. Yet here are the Terrapins, two wins from bowl eligibility midway through October, an accomplishment that appears just short of miraculous.
As the victories mount, Maryland’s expectations increase. But the team’s overarching goal — to get better with each game, to avoid the regressions seen in 2011, when bad losses begat even worse losses — remains the same.
The Terrapins’ defense has preached its desire to become the top-ranked ACC unit all season, but each week brings a new micro challenge to be conquered in pursuit of the macro. Last Saturday’s 27-20 win over Virginia served as a wake-up call for defensive coordinator Brian Stewart’s 3-4 unit. Maryland allowed a season-high 168 rushing yards and 13 so-called “explosive” plays, defined as a rush of 12 or more yards or a pass of 16 or more yards. And so their weekly Sunday meeting felt more businesslike than usual.
“We were happy that we won, but our performance wasn’t good enough,” linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield said. “It wasn’t up to par.”
Still, in every midweek interview he and his defensive teammates conduct, Hartsfield said, some reporter inevitably mentions their top 10 national ranking.
“Of course it’s in the back of your head,” he said. “It creates an element of confidence, which isn’t a bad thing, but we can’t let it get us too big-headed. We haven’t done anything that we wanted to accomplish, and that won’t be done until the end of the season. Then we can look back and see.”
A rearview-mirror shot of the season’s first half reveals a procession of wake-up calls, and the Terrapins (4-2, 2-0 ACC) have responded to each. Cornerback Dexter McDougle rapidly improved after being flagged three times for pass interference in the season opener against William & Mary. Quarterback Perry Hills’s least productive game of the season, a 10-for-24, 109-yard showing against Connecticut on Sept. 15, yielded his best game the following week at West Virginia.
“You’re not going to play your best every week,” Coach Randy Edsall said. “It’s just not going to happen. Even in the NFL, and those guys are professionals. If you don’t play your best and you still are able to come out winning, that’s something you want to be able to do. But when you have one of those weeks, you need to say to yourself, ‘Maybe I didn’t prepare right or study enough.’ Those true competitors are the guys who bounce back, because now they might tune in just a little bit more and understand that, some of the stuff on the outside that you hear, really isn’t that important.”
What’s important now is how Maryland’s defense, ranked ninth nationally in both total yards allowed per game and rushing yards allowed per game, matches up with North Carolina State (4-2, 1-1), which is rested from a bye week and still harboring the euphoria of its 17-16, last-minute upset of then-No. 3 Florida State in Raleigh on Oct. 6.
Bitter memories of Maryland’s fourth-quarter collapse in a 56-41 loss last season, when quarterback Mike Glennon threw for five touchdowns and 306 yards in the Wolfpack’s 27-point comeback, have since been excised. The lessons learned against Virginia have not.
“It puts things back in perspective,” defensive lineman A.J. Francis said. “You’re not as good as you think you are. I think we understand, we still have to come to play every single week. These guys we play against are just going to keep getting better and better as conference play goes along. That’s what it comes down to, we have to stop the run if we want to win.”
Expectations are malleable, established at the season’s outset then adjusted according to performance, positive or negative. Edsall maintained this week that Maryland’s overarching goals haven’t changed, but conceded the undeniable truth that, the more you win, the more significant games become.
“We haven’t addressed it that way, but I think it’s human nature that you know that,” Edsall said. “We’ve talked about getting win number five, getting to 3-0 in the league. But we haven’t done anything different in terms of preparation. That’s all stayed the same.
“You always want to hope that you can be your own toughest critic. For the guys to realize that, that tells you that they don’t want to settle for a level of expectation that isn’t the highest they think it can be. That comes with experience, and when you take a look at us defensively, there’s a lot of experience there. It’s good they feel that way.”