Know Your Opponent: Maryland

Why did Maryland so eagerly exit the ACC? Why are the Terrapins pioneers in racial equality? And did I just see Randy White in a Santa suit? To get Cardinal fans primed for their Foster Farms Bowl foe, Opposing Views welcomes the expert opinions of Terrapin Times writer Dave Lomonico and publisher Keith Cavanaugh.

The Bootleg: Maryland in the Big 10: How did the fan base react to the move to the Big 10? How do you reconcile the new affiliation with the loss of historic rivalries (especially Duke in basketball) with what can be seen as an upgrade? What are the pros/cons of the move? From a distance, it looked all about money as the conference gained a Washington, D.C. TV market while the school gained a lot of cash to help out an athletic department saddled by financial issues. Is there more to it? Are there ANY similarities between College Park, Md. and Columbus/Ann Arbor/East Lansing?

Terrapin Times: First things first, on the football side of things, Terps fans got used to it pretty quickly this season, especially given big wins at Penn State and Michigan (two places UMD had never won before), not to mention a road win at Indiana to begin Big Ten play. The new travel experiences/destinations were fun for fans seeing new cities and huge football venues compared to most ACC school's stadiums. Opposing Big Ten schools' travelling fans had good experiences at Byrd Stadium, and mixed well with Terps fans the first time around. While there will always be traditionalists who frowned upon the move, and some still do, it was muted by the 7-5 finish in football and a bowl berth in “Year One.”

So all in all, Year One has gone well. Attendance was up at Byrd Stadium, while the main negative was the Senior Day home loss to Rutgers, a game Maryland led 35-10 at one point, which negated Maryland's likely shoe-in to the Bowl (formerly the Gator Bowl), where in 2004 Maryland sent over 15,000 fans to Jacksonville.

Hardcore hoops fans indeed miss the annual Duke and UNC men's basketball games, and roadies to venerable spots like Cameron Indoor Stadium. But all in all, after years of often feeling like the red-headed stepchild of the Carolina-dominated league, most fans have put the ACC in the rearview mirror. Furthermore the Big Ten Network has blown away anything the ACC has ever had [Ed: The BTN referred to Stanford as “high-profile,” in addition to being a “prestigious opponent” for the Terrapins.] All of the above has combined to give Terps fans an excellent experience so far. Long-awaited new indoor football facility plans, which for years has been the final missing piece to the football puzzle here, were announced last month. So it has been a good year both on the field and off.

TB: For those who aren't familiar, explain the circumstances surrounding Randy Esdall's hiring as head coach, and how he replaced a very successful predecessor. Why didn't Ralph Friedgen stay at a school that he led to great success, its best since the early/mid-‘80s? How would you rate Edsall's accomplishments since he came on in 2011?

TT: Veteran coach Ralph Friedgen wanted a multi-year extension the same year both a new president (Wallace Loh) and athletic director (Kevin Anderson) arrived at College Park. But for a head coach in his twilight years, whose recruiting classes were beginning to dip and whose assistants were leaving (as in offensive coordinator James Franklin to Vanderbilt as head coach), the foundation became porous. The administration wanted a new direction in football. And yes, all this occurred despite Friedgen finishing 9-3, winning the Military Bowl and earning ACC Coach of the Year honors in his final season.

In came Edsall, who quickly cleaned house with massive player transfers, including QB Danny O'Brien. His first two coordinators proved misses, and both were gone within a year. Two losing seasons began a tenure marked by horrific injury blights and depth issues. Last season, Edsall got the Terps to the Military Bowl before losing to Marshall. This year started out well before going off the rails a bit, thanks to injuries and up-and-down efforts from sixth-year senior quarterback C.J. Brown. Brown finished on a high note with wins at Penn State and Michigan before the meltdown against Rutgers that resulted in a 7-5 finish.

Recruiting still needs to improve, especially locally, but there are signs that may be happening. And Maryland needs a big class this year, especially on the defensive line, to reload after this year's senior-dominated lineup. Maryland is currently 50th in the country with their 16 verbal pledges, so the Terps must finish strong to get that number up. It was a pivotal year for Edsall, who just finished year four of a six-year deal.

TB: Talk about wide receiver Stefon Diggs' talents. Is health an issue for him? I see he's missed quite a few games in the last two seasons especially. TT: Stefon Diggs is certainly talented, but what makes him special is actually his ultra competitive drive and will to win. He’s someone who, if challenged, is going to respond and rise to the occasion. Diggs is one of those “hate to lose” types who never backs down from competition. Talent-wise, while he doesn’t have the fastest 40 time, he’s very quick and can take the top off the defense. He has seam-splitting ability and can outrun most defensive backs. Diggs is also extremely aggressive in the air, while possessing big, strong hands that allow him to make the circus catch. He runs tight routes and can be effective both as a slot, where he can generate yards after the catch, or on the outside as a field stretcher.

As far as his health is concerned, it’s mainly been two freak accidents that have knocked him out. In 2013 he missed six games when a defender hit his right leg awkwardly, causing a fracture. Then this year he absorbed another hit and lacerated his kidney.

Diggs was probably most susceptible to injury his freshman year when he’d yet to hit the weight room in earnest, but ironically he made it through that season mostly healthy. But in addition to the injury, he was also suspended a game (Michigan State) for refusing to shake hands in the pregame with Penn State captains after a dust-up between the sides during warmups.

TB: Defensively, what are Maryland's strengths? Who are the key players to watch? When have the Terps this season shown an ability to either rush the passer or stop the run?

TT: Maryland’s main strengths are its front seven (when healthy), as well as cornerback Will Likely. The Terps have holes here and there, but for the most part the three down linemen and four backers have held their own.

The key unit is the defensive line, which features Keith Bowers and Andre Monroe on the edges and Darius Kilgo clogging the middle. Monroe is one of the best pass rushers in the Big Ten and earned all-conference honors. He’s undersized, but he has a relentless motor and has broken down some of the Big Ten’s best left tackles. Kilgo, meanwhile, acts as both a space-eater and backfield buster. He’s someone who usually keeps blockers off the linebackers, while pressing the pocket a couple times each game. Bowers is a replacement for injured starter Quenton Jefferson, and while he lacks flash, he’s been okay in run defense.

In the linebacker corps, inside backer Cole Farrand quarterbacks the unit and is known as a capable run defender. He sniffs out plays, is always around the ball and usually doesn’t allow any yards after contact. Sometimes he struggles in coverage, but for the most part he’s reliable. Fellow inside linebacker L.A. Goree really came on his senior year after finally getting a chance to start full-time. He’s another steady defender who actually has more speed than Farrand, allowing him to range sideline-to-sideline.

At OLB, Yannick Ngakoue is the team’s best rush-backer. He’s a load to handle coming off the edge, combining both power and speed. And the fourth linebacker, who is actually the key to the defense, is Matt Robinson. The team’s best cover linebacker, Robinson has the size to match up with tight ends and the speed to stick with receivers. He’s also a sure tackler in the open field. Problem is, he’s injury-prone. He will be back for the Stanford game after recovering from yet another shoulder ailment.

Last but not least, pay attention to Likely at cornerback. He’s only 5-foot-8, but he plays with a massive chip on his shoulder and refuses to back down from any receiver. He’s a sticky-fingered, heady press corner who led the Big Ten in interceptions this year. [Ed: Six picks, two returned for touchdowns.]

TB: Talk about Maryland's offensive identity. The numbers show C.J. Brown is both a running and passing threat, but he's struggled with his completion percentage. Do those stats tell the whole story? How has he progressed throughout his career?

TT: Maryland’s offense is at its best when C.J. Brown acts as a true dual threat. When he’s running the zone-read and making defenses account for his legs, it opens up the rest of the offense.

The problem becomes when he’s asked to sit in the pocket and act as a traditional spread quarterback. Brown has struggled with his accuracy and decision making at times, and his arm isn’t exactly Andrew Luck-like. So if defenses can simply sit back and bait him, he can get into trouble.

In terms of his career arc, he actually ascended to the starting job as a sophomore in 2011 and started five games. He showed promise at the time, but an ACL injury knocked out his entire 2012 season. Brown came back strong in 2013, however, and was actually voted the team’s offensive player of the year. That’s because the coaching staff took the reins off him and allowed him to use the zone-read for the majority of the campaign.

He still showed limitations as a passer, but he was more than capable of making plays when the threat of him running put defenses back on their heels. This year, Brown really didn’t develop much as a pure thrower, and it showed when he was asked to stay in the pocket in order to avoid injury.

TB: What are the greatest moments in Maryland football history? Who are the all-time greats? Do players like Randy White, Boomer Esiason, Vernon Davis, etc. retain ties to the program?

TT: Yes, all those guys do. The last time the Terps were in San Francisco, for the Emerald Bowl against Oregon State in 2007, Davis visited with the team. Some of the players even toured a local art gallery where Davis had some work exhibited.

Esiason is the most visible, returning for a few games and events each year. As for White, well if you haven’t seen the recent Dick's Sporting Goods television ads touting Under Armour (founded by UMD alum Kevin Plank), you need to. White plays Santa Claus! He is still one of Maryland's most revered football alums. A Raleigh News and Observer poll from a few years back rated White the No. 1 (at all positions) football player in the last half-century of ACC football. And as for greatest moments, the 1953 national title, the Miracle in Miami comeback win in 1984, and the resurgence of Maryland football in the early Ralph Friedgen years (see Orange, Peach and Gator bowls in his first three seasons), have to rate tops.

TB: Speaking of history, Maryland football had a pretty good run there in the ‘70s to the mid-‘80s, becoming one of the ACC's best teams. Then you had an extended drought (one bowl game in 15 seasons until this century). What happened? Would you call Maryland a “basketball school?” How does the program's popularity rate compare to UMD hoops, or to other pro teams in your area?

TT: What happened is Maryland hired three coaches – assistant coach Joe Krivak (who coached the likes of Esiason, Neil O'Donnell, Frank Reich and Stan Gelbaugh), Mark Dufner and Ron Vanderlinden – who all failed. The program and its fan support waned. The Terps enjoyed a bolt of lightning when Friedgen took the Terps and 20,000-plus fans to the 2002 Orange Bowl. Maryland football hadn't been bowling since the 1990 Independence Bowl under Krivak.

Also, the 1986 death of Len Bias shook up the entire university, making academic standards across the board much more stringent in its aftermath. It's one of the reasons head football coach Bobby Ross quickly left that year. Football never really recovered until Friedgen arrived in 2001.

Also, by and by, Maryland is still considered more of a “basketball school” (with national titles for both the men and women this century), but even men's hoops took a hit recently with four years outside the NCAAs, which is unheard of at College Park. This season, fourth-year coach Mark Turgeon has things rolling, with a great young nucleus playing ahead of its years already and hope has returned, finally.

TB: Bear Bryant coached there. Mike Tice played quarterback for the Terps. Maryland is one of the rare schools to win both a football national title and an NCAA basketball tournament championship, joining a distinguished panel (Florida, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Syracuse and UCLA are the only others). Any other "strange-but-true" facts about your school and its football program?

TT: Well, nothing strange, but you have to remember Maryland was/is a pioneer in many ways, as the school broke the ACC color-line in both football (Darryl Hill) and men's basketball (Billy Jones). It also broke the ACC color-line in men's basketball coaching (Bob Wade), and hosted that famous 1966 Kentucky-Texas Western men's basketball NCAA title game with all-white Kentucky against all-black Texas Western, one of the college game's most historic tips.

TB: How big a deal is this game for your program? How well will your fans travel? What would a win mean?

TT: The game is a big deal for a number of reasons. Although Maryland finished 7-5 this year and held its own in the Big Ten (4-4), there was a sour taste left from the regular-season finale when it lost at home against Rutgers. The Terps could use a rebound game to go out on the right foot and build momentum heading into 2015. Also, this game is significant for recruiting purposes. It will be televised nationally, and if the Terps show well it would have an effect on their targets -- and would give the staff another tool to use when pitching the program. Thirdly, UMD hasn’t won a postseason game since Ralph Friedgen was the head coach, so a victory would inspire more confidence in fourth-year headman Randy Edsall, who has yet to record a bowl win.

As far as traveling is concerned, there is a modest contingent of Terps fans who are heading west, while there are over 14,000 Terrapin alumni living in California. San Francisco is a nice destination spot, and Maryland fans haven't been there in seven years. At the same time, it is an expensive trip during the holidays, which will limit the number of average fans who might otherwise trek to a game at, say, nearby Navy (which was where the Terps played last year in the Military Bowl).

TB: That Maryland accent...think Mel Kiper...what do you call that? Is there name for it?

TT: Ha, Mel Kiper is from Baltimore, and that’s a distinct accent all in itself called Baltimorese. “Baltimore” becomes “Bawlmer,” “wash” becomes “warsh,” “sink” becomes “zink” and so on and so forth. We also have a coined, signature phrase you’ll inevitably hear if you ever come out here: “How ya ‘doin, hon?”

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