COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Given his elder statesman status -- a rarity on the Terps' O-line these days -- steady demeanor, and own personal journey from walk-on to starting left tackle (one even getting NFL sniffs), well, many tend to lean on Maryland senior left tackle Michael Dunn.
Even Terps’ headman D.J. Durkin, who came to Dunn in the aftermath of Maryland's second-straight letdown game, the punch-less 31-10 setback to Minnesota last week at home, for answers.
Answers, among many, of why the Terps lacked the energy, focus, even "grit" -- as Durkin called it postgame in a game he benched some starters in favor of rookies -- that they didn't lack in the first four games.
After the 4-0 feel-good start and votes in the Top 25, the Terps have come back down to earth, be it quarterback issues, turnovers, penalties and the like. But that "energy and focus" remains one of the biggest elephants in the room after spirits were soaring through the unbeaten start, the many self-inflicted wounds piling up of late as the Terps have beaten themselves.
"Coach Durkin and I spoke about it, and I agree with what he said," Dunn said of the flatness, the lethargy. "He felt we were a bit flat as far as the game. But I am not sure. I can't really pin it down. But I know it is not going to happen again."
Dunn, usually cool and composed, rocked a bit more in his chair at media interviews this week, his brow a bit more furled, as he sounded off on several topics. The Terps hit the crossroads of their season Oct. 22 against a 2-4, 0-3 Big Ten Michigan State team coming to town for the “black-out” game at Maryland Stadium.
Dunn, seemingly tiring of questions back-to-back weeks during the two-game skid, said the players "are ready to win again" and the 'black-out' evening tilt should stoke the fires even more.
Beyond the aforementioned factors, it also starts up front on both lines, where youth has begun to show at times on Dunn's very unit.
What with true freshman Terrance Davis now the starter at right guard (lapping former senior walk-on Maurice Shelton, who was being overpowered); sophomore former right guard Damian Prince has kicked out to right tackle, where at times his athleticism has been exposed (not to mention a questionable holding call versus Minnesota that helped turn that game); while even Dunn was uncharacteristically flagged for two penalties against Minnesota, a procedure call early and a holding call late.
All part of a nine-penalty game that doomed the Terps, along with four turnovers, and a gassed defense because of the offense's inability to sustain drives or score points.
Meanwhile, starting left guard Mike Minter, yet another former walk-on, has whiffed badly on key blocks in each of the last two weeks, once falling on Dunn's back inadvertently he was so out of position.
It has been a combination of errors and miscues, most mental and seemingly fixable. Pass-pro has broken down of late, the quarterbacks getting hit from the backside or running for their lives amidst a sea of broken plays. In the run game, more defenses are loading the box and making Maryland beat them through the air, which they haven't been able to do with an ailing Hills, who, even when healthy, is limited in the vertical game, and a greenhorn in Tyrrell Pigrome.
But as for those offensive linemen, their leader Dunn sound off a bit:
"It's halfway through the season already, you can’t really consider them to be the baby true freshmen for too long," Dunn said. "All have had good experience already, so you don't really look at them too much anymore that they are just young, they are just freshmen at this point of the season. They are just like everyone else, communicating like anybody else, not scared to make calls or anything like that.
“But they have to just keep improving their confidence, which is one of the biggest things I like to tell them. That confidence is key as an offensive lineman, especially as an offensive lineman, and they have to keep telling themselves they can do it. I mean, there is a reason why they are starting on a Big Ten football team at such a young age. There is a reason for that, and that is they worked for it, and now they just have to keep working hard every day and just get better."
The offense, as a whole, has yet to find its tempo, pace or much rhythm the last two games, especially when Hills went down late in the second quarter at Penn State not to return. Pigrome is exciting when the play breaks down and he runs free, but it’s few and far between in the pass game for the rookie, who has lacked accuracy and touch on his throws. And if the first read is not there, he tends to panic and tuck it and run. Which is an issue, because there haven’t been a lot of alleys of late, either.
But Dunn isn't heaping the offensive issues on Pigrome.
"Perry, you always miss a player like that, a great kid, a really trough who you know always lay it on the line for you," Dunn said. "But Piggy, some of the stuff he did he (Perry) can’t do, I mean, it's pretty incredible. But we don't have the mentality if one person goes down no matter who it is like, 'Oh God, we really miss him, love to have him.' The next guy has to step it up, and we have a lot of confidence in Piggy, and that's why he was the guy that came in. If he's still playing (this week) we'll have all the confidence in the world he will lead us to victory."
Dunn also sounded on all the weapons Maryland's offense has in its toolbox that need to be utilized more. It has been feast or famine for Maryland's receiving corps this year, as the Terps still look to find a throwing identity, not to mention Maryland's tight ends, who have mostly been blockers all season.
At times, it would appear more screens, slants, swings or quick drags to tight ends over the middle could help unclog the pass offense and loosen up stacked defenses. But those calls have been few as well.
"When we are playing at our best, well we can be a really good offense," Dunn said. "The skill position players that we have are pretty remarkable. We have play-makers everywhere. And the O-line just has to do our part so that these play-makers can make these plays. What we are capable of at our best is pretty incredible."
Dunn said every day he tries to get the leadership message across to many of the young, or new, players, who are sprinkled throughout the lineup. And that may include on the defensive side of the ball as well, where star senior corner/return ace/slot Will Likely is to likely be out of action following his knee injury versus Minnesota. That will be a huge blow across the board for the Terps, the team's most valuable player end to end.
"You know, really the main thing is to convey confidence. Show them that it is unfortunate we lost two in a row, but it happens," Dunn said. "And show them we're 4-2, that's not awful, that's not end of the world.
"But we're just not really playing up to our standards right now. It's nobody fault, no individual, no unit. We all just have to do a better job. And on film this week we saw our mistakes, saw what can better, and we will get better. And we will get better for Michigan State this week."
And the O-line at large was hardly immune to Dunn's critiques either:
"What's been wrong? Technique issues, definitely some footwork problems we're having, some communication problems....so a lot. So we just have to keep working on the fundamentals and communication between each other and keep getting better."
Those included his own two flags, which doomed drives as well. The Terps keep getting in first-and-second-and-longs, and the rookie quarterback Pigrome can’t get them out of playing from behind yet as he remains heavy on the learning curve.
"It happens. I can't really do too much about it right now," Dunn said of his own miscues. "I think we had some mess-ups like in any other games, but it was like 3-4 plays that really hurt us in that one. Whether you are poor fundamentally or are being over-aggressive…. but they are definitely drive-killers. It's tough to make up for a penalty like a 15-yard penalty, a 10-yard penalty, so we have to eliminate them for this week. And we can."
Finally, Dunn commented on Michigan State -- a wounded animal you probably don't often get right on, regardless of record.
"They are still a really good team, still a lot of talent on the team, and a solid, really good Big Ten defense with some big players on their team,” he said. “And we are not really paying too much attention to their record. We are going to prepare for them like we prepare for every team, as they play really hard. They will show tons of effort hitting us, so have to match their effort and come out and hit them harder."
Dunn recalls the night game two years when the Terps started strong, but fizzled in a loss. Even so, he remembers the electric atmosphere and expects more of the same this time around.
"I am very excited for it, a night game at home, and I am sure the fans are going to be coming out in full strength. Michigan State is a Big Ten team, so any win over a Big ten team would be huge for us,” Dunn said. "But I watch them and I see Michigan State, a team that's still very difficult to beat. And if you go into it thinking they are 2-4 and on a two-game losing streak, then we are going to be the guys in trouble."