COLLEGE PARK - The area football coach who's closest to having genius status has a College Park ZIP code.
He doesn't live in Baltimore, use five-syllable words and declare he has several thousand plays in his playbook. He doesn't coach in Washington, wear a visor and call his offense "Fun 'N' Gun." The best X's and O's guy wears khaki pants and waddles when he runs.
When he makes a terrible call, he can point his finger at others or himself, and then laugh at his own mistake.
The best strategy planner around is the big man called "The Fridge."
"There are no geniuses in this business, just good players and putting them in position to make plays," said Maryland football coach Ralph Friedgen.
Bingo. That's what Friedgen does as well as anyone in the college or pro game.
He seemed to get lost in the offseason genius shuffle when the Washington Redskins hired former University of Florida coach Steve Spurrier. That put one guru in D.C., close to the other genius about 40 miles north in Baltimore named Brian Billick.
But the one who has shuffled quarterbacks the least and maintained the best offense is Friedgen, winner of 18 of his first 22 games as a college head coach. He keeps making the most out of the least.
Yesterday, Friedgen and his coaching staff had to improvise again on the run in Maryland's 24-21 win against No. 14 N.C. State at Byrd Stadium, a victory that keeps the Terps on course for a Gator Bowl appearance. It wasn't pretty, not up to Friedgen standards.
The Terps (8-2) dropped four passes. They were penalized 10 times for 95 yards, including several for delay of game. They had only 18 yards passing in the first half, and Wolfpack quarterback Philip Rivers looked like Joe Montana in the first two quarters, completing 14 of 19 passes for 156 yards. But on a day when Maryland got pushed around for three quarters, the Terps still won.
And they'll gain a national ranking in the Top 25 this week.
Friedgen and his staff do a great job of isolating. His players aren't great, but his ability to create favorable matchups is superb. N.C. State came into yesterday's game wanting to take away Maryland's running game, which would force Terps quarterback Scott McBrien to win the game.
The Wolfpack jammed its linebackers on the line of scrimmage, which caused confusion in Maryland's blocking scheme. N.C. State also played man-to-man coverage, bringing in an extra defensive back to cover. But instead of panicking and going pass-happy, Friedgen and offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe kept the ball on the ground.
They went with four wide receivers to spread out the Wolpack's defense, and then ran the ball. The Terps would get into a shotgun formation, but then run the ball. When Maryland passed, it was mostly shuffle and slant-in routes, all quick and safe routes.
Here was the cutest trick. Because of the extra defensive back, N.C. State had Maryland's option attack covered. Well, almost. No one thought McBrien would carry the ball.
He had a 46-yard run around right end late in the first half that was negated by a penalty, but also scored on a 21-yard option run around right end that tied the score at 21 with 9:26 left in the game after a fake handoff.
Another touchdown came on a 64-yard reverse to receiver/returner Steve Suter with 13:05 left in the second quarter. It was Suter who set up Nick Novak's game-winning 26-yard field goal with 34 seconds remaining by running a corner route from his slot position for a 36-yard reception down to the N.C. State 14.
Suter beat cornerback Lamont Reid.
Again, the Terps got the one-on-one matchup they wanted.
"He is such a talent," Wolfpack coach Chuck Amato said of Suter. "When you have someone that can make plays for you, you need to find ways to put the ball in his hands."
It's not that difficult, even though St. Louis Rams coach Mike Martz had a hard time figuring it out until a couple of games ago when he started giving the ball to running back Marshall Faulk. A lot of geniuses have that problem, being too locked into their schematic and scripted-play worlds.
But what sets Friedgen apart from Spurrier and Billick is that he has a "feel" for the game.
He knows when to speed it up and when to slow if down. And just because the original form of attack doesn't work, he won't abandon it, just find another way to execute it.
"We had to do some things that were a little different for us," Friedgen said. "N.C. State did a good job of taking our normal stuff away, but we adapted."
Adaptation is a key word on this campus. There aren't too many blue-chip players on the Terps' roster. This is a young team that has shuffled through offensive linemen. Its best running back, Bruce Perry, has missed most of the season with abdominal, groin and shoulder injuries. The team's best defensive player, E.J. Henderson, has played well but lacks his explosiveness of a year ago.
Rivers has an ugly throwing motion, but McBrien's makes him look like a textbook thrower. But Friedgen has taken a player with a lot of shortcomings and turned him into a leader and winner, the second year he has done so with a so-so quarterback.
The other two geniuses haven't been able to do that. Spurrier has been through three quarterbacks this season, Billick has gone through eight in 3 1/2 years.
The Atlantic Coast Conference isn't the NFL, but that's not what we're talking about. We're talking about X's and O's, devising and implementing game plans on game day, and improvising.
You can take Spurrier. You can have Billick. The best guy is the one who resides in College Park.