Terps Roll Into Raleigh Thinking Must Win
COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Don't look now but this regular season finale at N.C. State just might be a bigger game than most folks realize. Maryland (6-5, 2-5) needs to close out with a victory to put some more shine on that bowl eligibility achieved two weeks ago.
The ACC is locked into nine bowl games, which could be a problem with 10 league teams currently at six-or-more wins and "bowl eligible," and Syracuse on the cusp. And if it's hard keeping track of who's in what conference these days, try to figure out which conference is affiliated with which bowl.
For a quick review, the ACC bowl tie-ins are a BCS bowl for the league champion, while the next tier of ACC teams go to the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta, Ga., the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando, Fla., the Hyundai Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, and the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, N.C.
The lower tier includes the AdvoCare V100 Bowl in Shreveport, La., the Military Bowl in Annapolis, Md., and the Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco. AdvoCare and Military Bowl scouts have hung out a shingle and had regular office hours in the Byrd Stadium at Capital One Field press box on game days this season.
And Randy Edsall has said that he discussed the situation with his hard-luck team, coming off an oh-so-tough 29-26 loss to Boston College in the home finale last Saturday. As per usual, that game is already filed away and the Terrapins are on to the next one, focusing on Saturday at noon at N.C. State (3-8, 0-7).
"The kids know, you don't have to remind them," said Edsall of the bowl situation. "They want to get win No. 7, secure a winning season first and foremost. They understand that we can put ourselves in a better position."
The Terps seemed in a pretty good position early in the fourth quarter at home last Saturday, up 24-13 on BC before things went awry, the Eagles ultimately soaring away with a win after a 52-yard field goal as time expired.
Several Terps admitted you don't just shrug that kind of setback off easily. "Yeah, it's tough to fall asleep after one like that," said center Sal Conaboy. "But come Sunday you have to shake it off, and move on to the next one. We're on to N.C. State film and we're getting ready for them."
Edsall said that on Sunday he showed the team eight plays on defense and "about 12" offensive plays on tape from the BC game. "(I) just said, ‘Hey, here's the things we didn't do,'" said Edsall. "They understand how we approach things around here. Of course everybody was disappointed because we had an 11-point lead with 10:42 to go in the game, and we didn't finish the job that we wanted to finish."
The coach said consistency was again a culprit, but he wanted to turn the page, too: "Once you go through that, and go through the film, you have to move on. You can't get it back. All you can do is learn from it."
To a man, the Terrapins are thankful – as are we all this week – that Maryland has one more regular season game, essentially a do-over for their blown Senior Day at home and the real, final ACC last game for Maryland.
"I think this is a really big game because we really want to finish with a winning record," said linebacker Matt Robinson. "If we lose to N.C. State we won't have a chance to do so. That's what coach has been preaching."
As for that final ACC game, it's hard to pin 60 years of memories and rivalries and tradition on athletes who are just a blip on the Terrapin timeline in the league, though media keep asking them.
"We really haven't given much attention to it," added Robinson. "On the back of our helmets it says ‘Farewell Season,' but it's probably the last time we'll play this team, and all we really want is to finish off on a winning note."
Injuries helped derail a winning ACC slate and upper echelon finish for the Terps in the conference but they did regroup to pull a shocker at Virginia Tech two weeks ago, something that may help them, heading back out on the road to Raleigh.
"It helps you a lot," said quarterback C.J. Brown of that recent confidence boost in Blacksburg. "And we've played great at NC State in the past. A lot of guys have been there before. This isn't our first time and we look forward to the challenge."
Brown has been up to the challenge and back to his old self in the last two games, rushing for three scores and passing for two more over that span. He seems more confident with his receivers, who are running better routes and hanging onto the ball more often. Amba Etta-Tawo had a touchdown against Boston College, and has caught 26 passes for 417 yards the last five games.
Levern Jacobs, back from a head injury, and Nigel King, are also making plays.
Now, if the Terps can just find their running game again. Syracuse held Maryland to 100 yards on 34 carries, a paltry 2.9 average, and Brown could muster just 22 yards on the ground.
"We have to execute, read all the right keys and make sure everyone's on the same page," Brown said of attacking a Pack defense that ranks 19th in the nation in tackles for loss with 7.2 per game, an indication there's some talent on that side of the ball despite seven consecutive losses by State this season, the last three all lopsided, including 42-28 setback at home to East Carolina last week.
"They will pressure you and give you different looks with their athleticism," said Edsall. "We have to watch the athletic guys that they have."
Senior linebacker Robert Caldwell, fourth in the ACC with 8.8 tackles per game, is one of those guys. Safety Dontae Johnson leads a talented secondary that has helped come up with 12 interceptions this year and ranks among the top ACC pass coverage units.
Brown said the biggest concern for the Terrapins, though, was which N.C. State team would show up Saturday. The long losing streak that State is on can affect a team different ways. "They have nothing to lose, it's going to be senior day and their emotions will be flying. They've had a tough season whereas in the past they've had success. They know what it takes to win. They're going to be fired up and it's going to be a tough game."
Unfortunately, Brown speaks from experience. He has been on some recent Maryland teams that have had trouble getting in the win column down the stretch. Don't look now but the Terrapins have lost four of their last five with an overtime win sandwiched in, and they need a little momentum, too, to assure themselves a postseason trip, a bowl giftbag and a more enjoyable offseason.
"We can't mope around," said Conaboy, the center who reiterated bouncing back wasn't a snap. "We just try to do the things that we always do, get in and watch film and get ready for the next one."
This next one has been particularly intriguing in recent years. Last season, back-up quarterback Caleb Rowe drove the Terps down for a potential game-winning field goal attempt against N.C. State, only to see then-freshman Brad Craddock hit the upright as time expired in a 20-18 loss in College Park. (Craddock, who has hit 17 of 21 field goal attempts this year, is now a Lou Groza Award finalist.)
Two years ago, Maryland had a 41-14 lead in Raleigh before the Pack came roaring back in a 56-41 victory that still sticks in some Terrapins' craws. Of course, State probably owed Maryland that one because in 2010, the Terps came from 14 down to win 38-31 in a game State needed for the Atlantic Division crown.
The previous two games were also one-possession contests decided in the final minute. Of the last 13 meetings, 11 have been decided by 10 points or less, and five by four or less points.
"It's always a fun game to watch," said Brown.
With Brown and senior Pack quarterback Brandon Mitchell battling, this one could be another shootout. Mitchell completed 28-of-44 passes for 312 yards and four touchdowns last week against East Carolina, all career highs. Only Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson, Mike Glennon and Terry Harvey have thrown for more scores in a game for State.
"They run a lot of multiple schemes and formations and they're going to try to run the ball a lot," said Robinson.
Lately running the ball in Raleigh has meant Shadrach Thornton, who has led the team in rushing the last three games and is averaging 76.4 yards per game against ACC opponents. The sophomore had 173 yards and two scores against Florida State, and 203 yards against Duke.
Five of seven ACC foes so far have rushed for 180-or-more yards against the Terps. Four of those teams have been over 230 yards rushing.
"They're a balanced team and they'll spread you out," said linebacker Marcus Whitfield. "We have to shut down the run and make them one-dimensional."
The run defense will get a boost with the return of linebacker Cole Farrand in the middle. He is seventh in the ACC with a team-high 8.3 tackles per game and Edsall lamented injuries keeping him out of the Syracuse and Boston College games, in particular, when those teams pounded the Terps on the ground.
In between, Farrand turned in a heroic effort at Virginia Tech, playing through a painful shoulder injury to record eight tackles. He had 23 stops at Clemson on Oct. 26, the second most tackles in any game this season in the country.
"He did everything he possibly could try to get himself ready to play last weekend," said Edsall. "And the effort that he gave at Virginia Tech when he got hurt, and then continued to play, I mean it just speaks volumes about his fortitude and his drive and his competitiveness and willingness to be there for this team."
Whitfield, meanwhile, still leads the team with eight sacks. His 0.77 sacks per game ranks seventh in the ACC and is tied for 20th nationally.
Will Likely, who gave the Terps a lift with a 50-yard kickoff return last week, is 16th nationally with a 13.3-yard average on punt returns but he's not the only dangerous return man on the field Saturday. N.C. State senior receiver Rashard Smith has three career punt returns for scores, and is 10th in the NCAA, averaging 15.3 per return.
The Wolfpack have 20 seniors playing their final home game Saturday under first-year coach Dave Doeren, but several of the Terrapins have said they're approaching this as a "Senior Day," too, after last Saturday's disappointment.
"We really want to send (the seniors) off the right way with a win," said Brown. "That's something we've talked about, and really, this is a historic game, Maryland's last ACC game. Most of all, though, we need to get win No. 7."
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