7-0 Terps perfect winning formula

College football: Maryland has parlayed efficient, ball-control offense, stingy defense and newfound mental toughness into an unbeaten record and No. 10 national ranking.

October 24, 2001|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - "What," the football player wanted to know, "can you do to help us win?"

Maryland linebacker Aaron Thompson, just off his third straight losing season, asked that question last November as he stared into the eyes of Ralph Friedgen, who was about to replace Ron Vanderlinden as the head coach in College Park.

Friedgen told Thompson and the rest of the players interviewing him that he would first teach them how not to lose. Then he would teach them how to win. In moving to a 7-0 record and a No. 10 national ranking heading into Saturday's game at No. 19 Florida State, many of the same players who finished 5-6 last season have displayed mastery of the first lesson and increasing grasp of the second.

"They're not hurting themselves with self-inflicted wounds," said George O'Leary. The Georgia Tech coach saw the Terrapins take an overtime victory from his then-No. 15 Yellow Jackets two weeks ago, but only after carefully hanging around for 57 minutes. "We gave them the opportunity. They took advantage of it, which is a credit to them."

Tailback Bruce Perry (No. 6 nationally in rushing) and linebacker E.J. Henderson (recently named a national defensive player of the week) are the face on Maryland's success this season. And a manageable schedule has helped.

But the foundation lies in the team's prudence on both sides of the ball, turning the program into a menace in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The offense holds onto the ball and the defense holds ground, allowing both to display a newfound toughness and take advantage of opportunities.

Protecting the ball

With Maryland's offense, Perry has provided the big plays, with a run of 20 yards or more in five of seven games. But while the mix of a dominant run game and plodding passing game seems awfully familiar, the ability to keep defenses off-balance doesn't.

As supervised by offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe, Maryland's formations, motion and personnel change from play to play. The variety prevents the Terps from bogging down inside the opponent's 20-yard line.

It also helps that the offense has committed only 10 turnovers this season, fewer than all but one other ACC team. Friedgen once griped about the six interceptions quarterback Shaun Hill has thrown, but last year's Terps lost nearly as many fumbles in one game (three) as the 2001 group has in seven (four).

Keeping the ball (and penalty flags) off the ground has been a point of emphasis for Maryland's coaches since spring practice began.

"Ball security is something we stress," Taaffe said. "We have about 12 offensive objectives, and one of them is to have fewer turnovers than the opposing offense. For whatever reason, the players have bought into that."

Tough to run on

Because of the defense, it rarely matters when the offense does make a mistake - none of the turnovers has led to opponents' points this season. Maryland has a veteran group that has allowed a league-low figure of 15.0 points per game.

West Virginia gained 430 yards on Sept. 29, and ambled deep into Maryland territory six times. Yet those drives produced more interceptions (two) than touchdowns (one).

Some of that comes from Maryland's ability to stop the run, a quality that took a holiday last season, when the Terps yielded nearly 200 yards per game. This season, the Terps allow only 100.4 per game.

And if the opponent likes to pass the ball?

"It's harder for throwing teams," defensive coordinator Gary Blackney said of plays in the red zone, where open space for passes dwindles. "Except for North Carolina, maybe Wake Forest to some degree, the majority of teams we've played have not demonstrated an ability to run the football compared to the ability to throw the football."

Maryland's 17 interceptions are five more than the defense recorded all last season. The defensive line and the linebackers harry opposing quarterbacks just enough to create opportunities for the defensive backs.

The defensive line was one of Friedgen's main concerns from the day he hit College Park. But, led by senior nose tackle Charles Hill, the front four has been causing disruption all season, forcing second-and-long situations roughly half the time.

"The one reason the linebackers are looking good is because the guys up front are taking the punishment," Friedgen said. "They're penetrating the line and freeing up [the linebackers]."

Faith in players

The defense features eight players (including four seniors) returning from last year's group, which gave up bushels of yards under Vanderlinden's staff.

While the players always believed in their abilities, the difference has been in believing that the coaches believe in them as well. That faith aided the team as it learned how to win football games, mostly by forcing turnovers.

Enter senior cornerback Tony Okanlawon, who had been the symbol for a battered Maryland secondary over the past three years and one of the greatest beneficiaries of a new defensive system.

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