COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- While Maryland again plays musical chairs at quarterback, the seat that head coach Randy Edsall sits in is getting a little hotter, too.
Edsall had to address a question on his status at Tuesday’s weekly press conference after back-to-back lopsided losses and a 2-3 start for his Terrapins this season.
“My whole focus will always be to make the kids better,” he said. “My job is to make them better on the field, make them better in the classroom and make them better as people. That’s the focus that we have, and as you continue to do that collectively, then the other things will take care of themselves. That’s the only thing I concern myself with. I don’t concern myself with anything else.”
Coming off the 28-0 home loss to No. 22 Michigan in the Big Ten opener Oct. 3, the Terrapins step up a class this week, traveling to No. 1 Ohio State (5-0, 1-0). Maryland will travel north unsure – at least publicly – which of three quarterbacks will start the game against the Buckeyes, who have won 18 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the country. Ohio State has won 25 Big Ten regular season games.
“It’s an opportunity that we can take advantage of, knocking off this team,” said junior defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson. “A lot of people don’t believe in us so that gives us more fuel (for) the fire. We’re just going to go out and make it happen.”
The Terrapins can take some solace in the fact that the Buckeyes haven’t been as impressive as forecast in the preseason. Two of their last three games have been one-possession victories (20-13 over Northern Illinois and last week’s 34-27 win at Indiana).
“Coaches put us in the right situations, everybody just has to execute and be on the same page, we do that and we can play them tough,” said Jefferson, who admitted that execution has not been the team’s strong suit so far this season. “A lot of team’s aren’t better than we are. We just have to execute. We shoot ourselves in the foot a lot, and that makes it hard to win when you’re competing against another team and yourself.”
The Terrapins played well enough to win on defense, save a couple of key breakdowns but the offense churned out just 105 total yards, only seven first downs and turned the ball over four times against Michigan. For the second week in a row and the third time in the last four games, a backup quarterback came in to try to reboot a sluggish attack.
“What we want to do is find the guy that gives us the best opportunity to win the ballgame,” said Edsall of the QB situation. “That’s what we’re going to do through practice this week and make a decision at game time Saturday [Oct. 10].”
Edsall has often gone this route in this Terrapin tenure, sometimes through injury uncertainty, but there’s little doubt the veteran coach thinks it’s a competitive edge to keep opponents guessing who will line up behind center.
Redshirt junior Caleb Rowe, the strongest-armed thrower of the group, has started the last three games, but has thrown a whopping 10 interceptions over that span and 12 total this season. The last two contests, he has completed just 18 of 54 passes for 114 yards.
Oklahoma State transfer Daxx Garman has come in the last two games, and completed six of 18 passes for 115 yards, and a late-game touchdown throw at West Virginia. He has one interception.
Perry Hills, who started the first two games but hasn’t been heard from since, is also in the mix as Edsall and offensive coordinator Mike Locksley keep all their options open heading to the Ohio Stadium horseshoe, where the Terrapins will certainly need some luck, in addition to some improved quarterback play.
“I think we have three guys that can play quarterback,” said Edsall. “It’s just like other positions. I think we’ve got three running backs that can play, as well. I think we’ve got some other positions, I think we’ve got wide receivers that can play. Again, it’s the same thing with quarterback. It’s trying to find the guy that will give us the best opportunity, who will execute what he’s supposed to execute (just like other positions).”
Fullback Kenneth Goins, Jr., agreed. “They all can play,” he said of the QB quandary. “We shouldn’t skip a beat. They all know what to do. They all know how to call plays and read defenses. They can all go in and play.”
Goins talked about the offense’s lack of execution as a team, not just at the one position. “The opportunities have been there to make plays but we haven’t made the throw in time or made the catch so we really focused on that this week. We need to take advantage where we can, making reads and just playing smart.”
But how is the confidence on an offensive unit that has just been offensively offensive to football purists the last two weeks?
“If you’re not up for this, I don’t even know why you play football. You want to show you can compete with the No. 1 team.” -- Quinton Jefferson
“It’s getting a lot better,” said Goins of an upbeat attitude on the unit. “This week we’ve turned things up. We know we have to turn this around. Something has to change. Something has to give. We all know we have to give a little more. We can’t just put it on the quarterback. It’s the team. Everybody is at fault. We’re just trying to go out and work hard.”
The Terrapins have posted back-to-back season-lows in total offense, and rushed for just 29 yards on 26 carries last week against the mighty Michigan defense. Now it’s the reigning national champions, an Ohio State team that may need a win with some style points to keep that lofty No. 1 ranking.
Challenge & Opportunity
Edsall and the two players that talked Oct. 6 were all on the same page about what it all means heading into Oct. 10. “It’s a tremendous challenge but a great opportunity, as well,” Edsall has preached since Oct. 3.
“It’s going to be a great atmosphere and a great opportunity,” said Goins. “(Ohio State) is good but there are things we can take advantage of. We have to do what we know we can do and execute a lot better than we have been.”
“It’s going to be a great environment,” said Jefferson. “The No. 1 team in the nation, so it’s a great opportunity for us to bounce back. This would be the time to do it.”
Jefferson said the Terrapins in that four-man front this year, are better equipped to stop the power Ohio State running game. The Buckeyes are second in the Big Ten with 239.6 yards per game on the ground and second with 34.4 points per game. Maryland has scored just 41 points in the last three games combined, and that includes 35 against South Florida.
“They’re a great offense with a lot of tools, a lot of weapons,” said Jefferson. “They’re one of the most athletic teams in the nation. It’s going to be fun. The defense is looking forward to the challenge of trying to stop this team.’
That challenge likely begins with Ezekiel Elliott, the reigning Big Then offensive player of the week, who is No. 6 in the nation at 145.8 yards per game, and has a current streak of eight consecutive 100-yard rushing games.
“He definitely makes that offense go,” added Jefferson. “He’s coming downhill and he finds a crease and really hits the hole. You have to fit your gaps right. He can get through the littlest hole and he has breakaway speed to take it the distance. He can run away from guys.”
Elliott did just that last year with 24 rushes for 139 yards at Maryland. The big gun, though was quarterback J.T. Barrett, who was 18-of-23 for 267 yards and four touchdowns.
There’s some uncertainty who will get the bulk of Buckeye snaps at quarterback now, though big, burly Cardale Jones has been the starter. His best statistic is that he’s 8-0 as a starter.
“Jones is an athlete, he can extend the play,” said Jefferson of the 6-5, 250-pound quarterback. “He likes to get outside the pocket and look downfield. He’s a big guy. You have to wrap him up when you hit him. He’s a big, big quarterback.”
In fact, Jones is just five pounds heavier (and three inches taller) than Maryland sackmeister Yannick Ngakoue, who has a nationally-ranked (fifth) 6.5 traps this season, and a streak of four consecutive games with a sack. Jones IS bigger than all the Maryland linebackers, and remember there’s some shuffling there with the glut of injuries on the weakside.
Maryland lost senior Jefferson Ashiru to ankle surgery after already losing Abner Logan to a knee injury in the preseason. True freshman backup Brett Zanotto went down with an ankle injury, too, so Maryland moved Jalen Brooks over from the strong side and inserted senior Avery Thompson into that slot.
‘If You’re Not Up For This, I Don’t Know Why You Play Football’
Edsall has been excited about Maryland’s hopes this weekend, especially after the defense did so much better a week ago, and kept the Terrapins in the game.
“I think our guys saw in the game [Oct. 3] that when we go out and play hard, execute, and have 11 guys running to the football, we play well,” he said. “That’s the thing that we’ve been coaching them to do. They just have to play aggressively. They can’t think or be tentative, can’t do things that will slow us down or put us a half-step behind where we need to be. Just read your keys, be aggressive, attack and play. That’s what we need to continue to do as we move forward this week.”
Jefferson said the team needs to go out and have fun, that the execution will follow. “The difference (last week) was we were doing what we were supposed to do. We were in the right fits (against the run) and we did the right things.”
Maryland’s defense forced Michigan off the field 12 times in 17 third down situations and also came up with two fumbles and an interception. That interception was Jefferson’s, the first of his career and on a play where he hustled outside the box and had the ball deflect right to him.
The solid effort by the defense and the big plays weren’t enough, though.
“We were frustrated,” Jefferson said. “We feel like we let one slip away. That team wasn’t better than us. It’s hard to get wins. You have to get them when you can.”
Jefferson said the Terrapins are building on the positives from last week, and that’s where the big hope lies. Maryland is capable of playing much better. Unfortunately – or as the Terrapins would have you believe, fortunately – they have to play better this week against the nation’s top-ranked team.
The last time Maryland knocked off a No. 1, it was 31 years ago and the Terrapins fell behind 31-0, before battling back to upset Miami 42-40 in the Orange Bowl, long before any of these current players were born.
“This is what everyone dreams, to play the No. 1 team in the nation,” said Jefferson. “If you’re not up for this, I don’t even know why you play football. You want to show you can compete with the No. 1 team.”