Turtles Start Slow: Navy's Chance for an Upset

In the animal world, the turtle can never accelerate very quickly—there's no such thing as a fast start for a creature that's eternally slow. Funny thing, then, that in the college football world, the Turtles from Maryland, who officially call themselves Terrapins or (informally) Terps, also start slow each September.

Head coach Ralph Friedgen is a certified genius, but the offensive acumen and wizardry of a top-flight mind can never prevent an inevitable fact of college football life: namely, that 20-year-old male members of the human species will make mistakes, especially at the quarterback position, early in a season. In past years, Friedgen has turned QBs Shaun Hill and Scott McBrien from ordinary into exceptional, but that very transformation suggests that those signal callers started from scratch and had to endure September struggles in which the Terrapins lost. McBrien, for his part, had to endure a 22-0 embarrassment against Notre Dame in the 2002 opener before ripening into a solid quarterback. The next year, he stumbled out of the box once again at Northern Illinois in a stunning overtime loss, before going back to the drawing board with Friedgen and working out the kinks in his game. Maryland put together solid seasons in '02 and '03, but those quality years still couldn't escape the September ambush.

Last year, Maryland's starting quarterback was Joel Statham. He never found a groove at all, but his bad season started bad when, after a glorified scrimmage against Temple, he drowned in a sea of turnovers in a meaningful game against West Virginia. The crucial mistakes in that game seemed to set a tone that Statham couldn't change as 2004 went on.

So in the last three years, Maryland has had two good seasons and one bad one. But a common thread runs through those three seasons: September was a month of struggle for the Terps, particularly at quarterback. It's as predictable as death and taxes: the first four weeks of the football year always manage to bloody-up Maryland's team. Like a slow-starting pitcher or a floating tennis ball, you better get Maryland early. If you don't, the slow turtle becomes the consistent, focused beast that grinds you down and wears you out. Navy can't expect Maryland to be the same team that never got going last year; if the Midshipmen are to win, they need to confuse the Terps' 2005 signal-caller, Sam Hollenbach, disguising looks and mixing defensive packages to create another boatload of turnovers. And when you give a Brigade of seaworthy gridiron Midshipmen a boatload of turnovers, you can expect they'll know what to do with them: win a huge ballgame in Baltimore on Saturday.

True, Navy needs to start anew on offense in 2005 with the loss of both Aaron Polanco and Kyle Eckel. However, defense will be Navy's best offense in this game against the slow-starting Turtles of the college football variety. That's good news for the Midshipmen, whose strength matches up well with Mayland's weakness. With crucial turnovers—and some agile hands that can bat down or tip passes at the line of scrimmage, much as in the win over Army last December—Navy can create the sea of turnovers that will bring about an upset. If the Midshipmen can do the deed, it will feel like 2004 all over again, and the Johnson Boys certainly want to recapture that feeling in 2005.

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