COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Caleb Rowe has ended up right where many observers thought he would be before the season began. It just took him a little longer to get here.
When Maryland’s depth chart came out for the South Florida game Sept. 19, Rowe had ascended to the starting quarterback job. He’ll replace the gutty Perry Hills, who won the job in preseason camp, but didn’t pass the eye test the first two games for many fans and finally, for Randy Edsall.
“I saw some things there (where) we weren’t getting the things done that we needed to get done for us to be who we need to be offensively,” said Edsall. “By making a switch I think it’s going to allow us to be a little more versatile and do some of the things we would like to be able to do. We have to put more pressure on the defense.”
Translation: Rowe is a better passer, hopefully capable of jump-starting the aerial game this weekend against another dangerous foe, South Florida (1-1). The Bulls rolled over Florida A&M in their opener and then lost 34-14 last week at Florida State. South Florida does have some playmakers and – ulp – they run a spread offense predicated on spacing the defense out and creating matchup difficulties.
Bowling Green did just that at the speed of light last weekend to the tune of 692 total yards and six touchdown passes. Bowling Green handed the Terrapins (1-1) their first loss. Edsall admitted part of the problem with his worn-out defense (that saw the Falcons run 105 plays) was that the Maryland offense couldn’t stay on the field.
Maryland moved the ball but was just 3-for-12 on third down conversions and that played right into the Falcons’ talons.
“We didn’t hold the ball offensively, we didn’t make first downs, knowing what the defense was going against,” said Edsall. “We weren’t able from an offensive standpoint to move the chains and stay out there.”
Rowe, who many expected to be the starter Day One, can make throws Hills can’t. He can throw from a hash mark to the far sideline on a line, an NFL-caliber heave. He had good touch on the deep ball and a veteran savvy in the pocket, though he was hurried into two interceptions last week in a late relief appearance.
“I think Caleb has a pretty strong arm,” said receiver Levern Jacobs, who has a touchdown in each of the first two games. “I’m excited to see what he’s going to do. I think it’s a great opportunity for him. He has been waiting to be in that starting role for a couple of years now, sitting in (C.J. Brown’s) shadow the past two years, and I think it’s his time to step up and show what he can do as a quarterback.”
And why wasn’t Rowe, who had more recent experience if not more overall experience than Hills, in the lineup from the get-go? Edsall contends Rowe, who missed spring practice recovering from his ACL injury, wasn’t at the top of his game in preseason camp, particularly early on.
“I think he’s a little better now than what he was going into camp,” said the coach. “The one thing you have to understand is when you have an ACL injury and you come back from that, it takes some time, not only physically but also mentally to overcome the questions you might have as an athlete. You get out there and keep doing things and get more confidence and feeling good about what you’re doing, and I think that was part of it. You see Caleb moving and settling and doing the things he was supposed to be doing as a quarterback more than he was when we started in training camp.”
Senior safety A.J. Hendy wouldn’t make any strong pronouncements though he sits back deep on the other side of the ball in perfect position to assess the quarterback condition for his team. “Caleb brings a lot of confidence and he has a very good arm. I’m looking for him to stretch the field a little bit and help us in the passing game a lot.”
One of the team’s leaders, All-America kicker Brad Craddock probably spoke for a lot of the team when he said day-to-day it probably wasn’t that big a deal within the program. “Obviously, I’m not on the offense but Perry and Caleb and Daxx (Garman) were all taking reps since the beginning of camp, and all sharing reps and to me, nothing has really changed in the locker room. We expect all three of them to perform when they play, and that’s no different from any player on the team.”
Garman, the throw-first, ask-questions-later transfer from Oklahoma State, moved to second on the depth chart. Edsall admitted Garman’s late arrival this summer in terms of NCAA rules and coaches and players working together had put him behind the other QB candidates. He is more up to speed now, and obviously ready to step in, if needed.
Catch a Rising Star
In addition to the big change at quarterback, there were some other subtle tweaks to the passing game. Freshman D.J. Moore, who had a 42-yard touchdown Sept. 12, will get his first career start against South Florida, replacing senior Amba Etta-Tawo. Also, sophomore Taivon Jacobs steps in for junior Malcolm Culmer.
While Hills had some trouble getting the ball out to his receivers, he wasn’t helped against Bowling Green with five dropped passes. Moore and Jacobs will join veteran Levern Jacobs in the starting lineup but all five will continue to play in a steady rotation.
“You look at D.J., the catch he made the other day and running through a tackle,” said Edsall. “I just think D.J., right now, gives us a little more. Same thing at the Z-spot, Taivon is a guy that has come back off knee injury and has more confidence, and you see him doing better. Plus he has a little more speed.”
Levern Jacobs said it can be a little unsettling working regularly with a different quarterback but that everyone has worked together so it’s not a big issue who is quarterbacking or who is receiving.
He was more concerned with the bottom line. “We didn’t put up enough points last week, we’ve just got to do a better job,” he said of the offense. “We knew it was going to be a shootout and we didn’t get it done.”
The elder statesman among the receivers, Jacobs wants to pass along his love for film study, particularly to his brother, Taivon, but he sees potential in the group, which entered the season as a question mark, and still hasn’t moved the needle strongly one way or another. “My brother has a great chance to show what he can do,” said Jacobs. “D.J. has great hands, he is able to pluck the ball out of the air. Amba has great speed. Coaches do a great job of rotating us.
Jacobs is mentoring the younger receivers, building them up. “They just need to be confident. Football doesn’t change. I tell them you can do the same things you did in high school, it’s about fundamentals and techniques.”
Etta-Tawo leads the air corps with seven receptions for 70 yards, while Jacobs has five for 64, including two scores. Culmer has five for 63, and a touchdown, and Moore has three for 65, and a score. Edsall said Moore’s sideline catch last week, disallowed by the officials for a foot out of bounds, had been reviewed by the Big Ten officials, and was in fact a catch.
Secondary Bouncing Back a Primary Concern
Hendy was back on the firing line Sept. 15, this time fielding tough questions from the media instead of under aerial assault from Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson. The Terrapins gave up 491 yards passing and six touchdown strikes.
“We can’t allow a lot of factors in the game to influence the outcome,” Hendy explained. “Yes, we played a lot of plays. Yes, we had some turnovers in some key situations but we can’t allow that to influence the game and give up as many big plays as we did.”
Hendy is the least-heralded of a secondary that includes All-America candidate Will Likely on one corner, veteran Sean Davis on the other, and hard-hitting Anthony Nixon at safety. They made plays against the Falcons but not enough of them as Bowling Green simply wore Maryland down with that relentless attack.
“We just need to go back to the basics,” he said. “When things aren’t going our way, I think sometimes we strain or do something extra outside of ourselves. Going forward, we need to focus on the fundamentals and the basis of what we’re doing and perfect our craft.”
And Hendy & Co., will get that chance in a hurry against a similar, if not as fast offense this week. That’s “fast” in terms of how many plays they run, because South Florida has more speed than Bowling Green did.
“They’ve got good receivers, good skill guys, a lot of speed, a quarterback that can move that’s elusive in the pocket,” Hendy said. “They have spread concepts and also some zone-read.”
Edsall said if defenders didn’t want to get targeted, it was very simple. Just make plays and play good technique and don’t end up someone future opponents will highlight on pregame film as someone to go after in the game plan.
The Terrapins could use some more momentum plays on defense this week. They’ve got eight sacks through two games but only one interception and no fumble recoveries.
Some of the Terrapins talked about how the team never lost two games in a row last season until the very end when a loss to Rutgers and then the bowl game loss to Stanford were back-to-back but actually a month apart.
“We have a great group of leaders on this team,” said Hendy. “I think we’re a mature group. We know the situation. We can’t allow one game to influence the whole season or even going into next week. We’re just moving forward to South Florida.”
Taking their talents against South Florida, as LeBron James might say.
Odds & Ends
*Maryland and South Florida met for the first time ever last season, the Terrapins taking a 24-17 decision in Raymond James Stadium despite seven fumbles. They lost four but got a big play when Avery Thompson scored on a blocked punt to provide the difference on the scoreboard. A late Alvin Hill interception sealed the deal.
*Defensive end Yannick Ngakoue had three sacks against Bowling Green, coming back big after a slow statistical start against Richmond. Ngakoue had three tackles for 22-yards in losses at USF last year.
*Will Likely’s 315 yards on punt returns this season is already the seventh best SEASON for a Maryland returnman. The record is 771 yards by Steve Suter in 2002. With two touchdowns this season, Likely is just two scores away from Suter’s NCAA record four punt return touchdowns in 2002. Suter holds the school career record with six. Likely has four.
*Maryland’s offensive line hasn’t allowed a sack this season.
*Maryland’s 8 sacks on defense ranks eighth nationally.
*MLB Jermaine Carter, Jr., is averaging 10.5 tackles per game, second in the Big Ten.
*RB Wes Brown has scored a touchdown in seven of his last 10 games.