COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- He has not even had a full year under his belt in College Park but senior defensive end Zeke Riser is the "go-to guy" on a lot of important topics at Gossett Team House because he has been around college football more than many of the other Terrapins.
"I'm the only guy on the roster that has been to more than one bowl game," said the Houston transfer Tuesday at Maryland's weekly football press conference. "So with a lot of the young guys that don't really know what (the bowls) are about or have just seen them on TV. (I am) just trying to give them something to strive for, something to look forward to at the end of the year. That's what we're really working for right now."
Maryland (5-3 overall, 1-3 ACC) has been one win shy of bowl eligibility now for going on four weeks. It's quite a leap for a team that had a combined six wins the last two seasons. The Terrapins started fast this year, winning their first four and making it look easy before the injuries started mounting. Now they've lost two in a row and three of their last four, and the team's second bye week of the season could not have come at a better time.
"We got a chance to rest our legs, focusing and watching film was the main thing," said sophomore Nigel King, suddenly one of the most experienced receivers left among an injury-depleted unit. "We know our opponent and what they do."
That opponent would be new-to-the-ACC Syracuse, meeting Maryland in a conference game for the first time (and the last time) ever this Saturday at 3:33 in Capital One Field at Byrd Stadium.
Every week, Randy Edsall and his players play up the next game as the most important – though not any more or less important than any other – and this week the focus is laser-sharp as the Orange (4-4, 2-2) come to town having won two of their last three. On paper it may be the Terrapins' best chance to get that suddenly elusive sixth win and coveted bowl eligibility.
"The actual goal we set wasn't for just six wins," said King. "We wanted to get as many wins as possible. We do want to be bowl eligible so we just take it week-by-week. The sixth win would mean a lot but we're not settling. We want to get as many as we can."
As only seniors can truly understand, there is a sense of urgency this Saturday for Maryland. Let Riser explain: "I definitely think now is a good time to get the sixth win. When we started 4-0, it was, ‘Okay we're going to get to six really quickly.' But it hasn't worked out that way with a bunch of different situations. I think we're definitely ready and a bunch of these guys are really tired of losing, to be honest with you. Everyone wants to get that sixth win and kind of get that chip off our shoulders."
Shoulders, knees, ankles, even C.J. Brown's "trunk" have been injured in recent weeks but the bye has given several Terps time to heal up and get ready for the four-game stretch drive that includes Saturday' home game and road tests at Virginia Tech and NC State, sandwiched around the home finale against Boston College on Nov. 23.
After missing the 40-27 loss to No. 8 Clemson two weeks ago, Brown will be back at quarterback, Brandon Ross at tailback and Dave Stinebaugh at tight end on offense. One other notable change is true freshman Moise Larose, all 6-6, 296 pounds of him, stepping in at left tackle for sophomore Mike Madaras, who suddenly left the program last week for personal reasons.
"Moise is the best guy to play that position for us so he's out there and I know he'll do a good job," said coach Randy Edsall. "He has worked very hard and will give it everything he has. I have been very impressed with him since he came in. Sometimes people get pressed into service quicker than you'd like but that's part of the game."
Larose steps in against an aggressive defense that likes to blitz from all angles and all positions. The Orange have already tossed two shutouts this year, including last week's solid 13-0 win over Wake Forest.
"Defensively they're very aggressive, a lot of blitzing, and they give you a lot of looks," said Edsall. "(Defensive tackle Jay) Bromley has eight sacks up front. Their linebackers are very active. Cameron Lynch, Marquis Spruill and Dyshawn Davis, those guys run really, really well, and (they are) very sound in the secondary. They put a lot of pressure on you."
The Terrapins expect to handle that pressure, particularly with Brown back at quarterback after missing two of the last four games and much of the other two. He practiced Sunday, and said he's feeling like his old self. That's a good thing since his old self is still fourth in the ACC with 252.2 yards of total offense per game.
"Those two weeks off definitely helped, I feel a lot better," said Brown. "I'm ready to go full-speed. I think you saw I wasn't myself and having that extra week to recover has been great."
Brown said Syracuse, which along with those two shutouts, also gave up 56 points to Georgia Tech four weeks ago, is "all over the place. They shut out Wake and Wake has a good offense. They're physical. They're big up front, they play a lot of different coverages but they've given up points, some big plays. We have to execute. We just have to make sure we're all on the same page and that we're picked-up up front."
Brown said he hopes to take advantage of the Orange's blitzing nature with a return to the option attack the Terrapins ran so well early in the year before his injuries. The Terps have dipped to 10th in the ACC in rushing with only 149.6 yards per game, but the return of Brown (six rushing touchdowns) and leading rusher Brandon Ross (5.0 average per rush and four scores) could perk up the ground attack.
Good thing, too, since Maryland lost it's two biggest playmakers when wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long both went down to knee injuries in the Wake Forest game. King and a younger crew of pass catchers are still trying to pick up that slack, and they've made encouraging strides here and there. Syracuse has given up over 200 yards passing five times this season, and over 300, twice.
"Mainly (we've been working on) catching the ball and making the big plays that come to us," said King, who had five catches for 78 yards and a score against Clemson. "I thought we missed a lot of opportunities to make big plays in that game."
There were missteps with the young receiving corps but besides King, sophomore Lavern Jacobs also came up big with eight grabs for 158 yards and a score, his second straight game with a long touchdown.
Brown said he has a good rapport with the current receivers – King, Jacobs and Amba Etta-Tawo – because of the up-tempo offense, all of them have had repetitions with him in practice before the injuries and even in games. " There's a lot of confidence there," Brown said.
Confidence is something the Terrapins have also gained in sophomore kicker Brad Craddock, as well. In the preseason, Craddock nearly lost his job to freshman Adam Greene because of his continuing inconsistency. But since the season began, Craddock is 15-for-18 on field goal attempts, including 14-for-15 on kicks under 50 yards. He was named to Lou Groza Award semifinalist list this week as one of the top kickers in the collegiate game.
He is dramatically improved from his freshman season and still learning the game after moving into American football after a background in Australian Rules football.
"I think Brad is a great role model for everybody on our team," said Edsall. "To see the amount of work he put into getting better and wanting to improve himself. Never complaining or having a bad attitude, all he did was go out and work his tail off, work at his craft and put himself in a position (to be on the list)."
Another list, the Maryland injury list, that won't be released until Thursday, has been trimmed of quite a few names thanks to the extra week of rest. Besides all those skill positions on offense, also look for junior L.A. Goree back at inside linebacker after back spasms kept him out of the last two games. In his last appearance, a 15-tackle effort against Virginia, he was named ACC Linebacker of the Week.
Also safety Anthony Nixon returns after missing the Clemson game with a toe injury, and cornerback Jeremiah Johnson (sidelined with a broken toe in the first game) could also be nearing a return.
"We have a chance to get some guys back in the fold," said Edsall. "And we'll see how the rest of the guys do this week with practice."
Edsall was actually in Syracuse, his alma mater, last week, recognized before the Wake Forest game on the field on a weekend when his wife, Eileen, was honored for her outstanding basketball and volleyball career. Per NCAA rules regarding live scouting, Edsall was kept outside the Carrier Dome during warmups, ushered in with other former Orange athletes in the pregame and then "escorted" back out before the game began.
Edsall was a four-year letterman and then coached at Syracuse for 11 years. He met his wife there, and enjoyed the weekend returning to the campus and catching up with former teammates like Art Monk. Edsall was 5-2 against Syracuse while at Connecticut, and has won his last four games against the Orange.
Overall, Maryland trails the all-time series with Syracuse, 14-18-2, and the Orange have won the last four but the last meeting was in 1994.
Back to this season, Riser talked about the attitude of the team through the bye week. "We've kept the idea that when a man goes down (with injury), another has to step up. We're trying to get those past two games behind us, make sure we're focused on the next one."
Riser said it's the younger players that come to him the most often to talk about postseason possibilities. "It's ironic because a lot of the freshmen are going to redshirt and not even play but they want to see that how their work, getting banged up in practice every week and not seeing anything for it, is going to be rewarded. You get to go to a different city, you get bowl gifts, have that whole experience."
The Terrapins haven't been to a bowl since the 2010 Military Bowl, and back-to-back, injury-plagued, losing seasons have take a toll on the team's psyche, thus Riser's lifting-of-spirits effort.
"Not a lot of guys know how it all works," he said. "Pretty much the more you win, the closer you get to playing in January. That's what you want to do. We could get to a bowl game and maybe playing two weeks after we find out where we're going to. The closer to January is what we want, a better bowl game, a better area, all that stuff just like everyone else wants, too."
And is this the week, Zeke?
"It seems like all the stars are aligning for us for it to be this week," Riser said of that important sixth win. "(Syracuse) hasn't been the most explosive team in the country on offense and we're coming off a bye week and playing really well against No. 8 in the nation, Clemson. Getting C.J. back and getting kind of revitalized on offense, and some of our guys on defense back, it seems like the right time."
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