Terps put out all-points bulletin for suddenly vanished offense

Recent ineptitude baffles team

big play needed to spark unit

College Football

October 20, 2004|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - There are a number of examples that could sum up the ineptitude of Maryland's offense over the past two games, but perhaps none is more absurd, and yet telling, than this: Against North Carolina State, offensive tackle Lou Lombardo had more catches (one) than wide receiver Steve Suter, the Terps' premier playmaker the past few seasons.

Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen has been trying to make sense of statistics like that ever since his team produced two of the worst offensive outings in college football this season in back-to-back games.

Maryland's 81 yards two weeks ago against Georgia Tech represented the worst offensive output of any Division I team this year, according to NCAA statistics, and the 91 yards the Terps gained against N.C. State was the third-worst effort.

What's equally baffling to Friedgen is that only one team, Minnesota, has gained more yards (704) in a game this year than the 685 Maryland racked up against Duke.

As a result, it's not exactly been a fun stretch for Friedgen, who has long been considered one of the game's top offensive minds. He said yesterday he'll likely make a "game-time decision" on his starting quarterback Saturday against Clemson, but whether it's Joel Statham or Jordan Steffy, the Terps have plenty of other problems to fix.

"We just have not played to the way we're capable of playing," Friedgen said. "Obviously, I have to look at myself when that's happening. I'm not doing something right. In some ways, we've tried to simplify things, and we may have gotten too simple. We've been working hard this week as coaches to try to be as simple as we can, but make it more difficult for people to defend us."

There is no question injuries have played a role in the recent offensive dry spell, especially on the offensive line. Every Maryland starter is battling some physical malady and, as a result, blocking schemes haven't been as precise and the blocks themselves haven't been sustained as long, leading to a litany of problems.

Center Kyle Schmitt has played despite a concussion against Georgia Tech, guard C.J. Brooks is still recovering from a pinched nerve, Lombardo is playing with a cracked kneecap, tackle Stephon Heyer dislocated his kneecap against N.C. State (and is doubtful for Clemson) and guard Russell Bonham missed the N.C. State game with a hamstring injury.

"Those excuses get old, though," Schmitt said. "Nobody cares that we're injured. N.C. State had guys injured, too. That's just football. We've got to overcome that. We're tough guys. We can play with injuries."

But as much as Maryland has struggled with the physical aspects of offensive football - like blitz pickups and making accurate throws - the Terps have also suffered a crisis of confidence lately, something unlike any that occurred in the previous three years.

"Somewhere along the line, we lost our confidence," said Suter, who has just 12 catches for 141 yards this season. "I don't know how it happened, or why it did, but the confidence we were playing with just isn't there.

"In the past, if something went wrong, we would be like, `We ain't worried about it. We'll drive down the field next time for a touchdown.' But against N.C. State, even though we looked sweet on that first drive, when we missed that field goal, we're like, `Oh no, here we go again.' "

Lack of confidence was certainly part of the problem with Statham the past two games, and it has allowed Steffy to close the gap between the two to the point where Friedgen said they'll get an equal number of reps with the first team this week.

At the start of the year, Statham's problem was that he was too careless with the ball, not that he lacked confidence, as evidenced by his 362-yard game against Duke, which included four touchdowns and three interceptions.

But the past two games, Statham has looked gun-shy, so afraid of making a mistake that he doesn't take chances. Against Georgia Tech, he threw for just 18 yards.

"I think there's a fine line with being aggressive and not being aggressive and trying to be too perfect," Friedgen said. "I think there's a little bit of that in Joel."

Friedgen and Taaffe are torn, though, over whether Steffy is ready to start his first career game in front of a hostile crowd like Clemson's.

"You keep waiting for one of them to step forward, and it hasn't happened as of yet," Taaffe said. "We'll just keep playing both of them and hope one of them steps to the forefront."

What everyone seems to agree on is that Maryland desperately needs some kind of big play to give the offense a spark, something that would make the team believe in itself again.

"We just need somebody to go like 70 yards on a play, and that could turn the whole season around," Suter said. "I've been putting a lot of pressure on myself to do that because I haven't had a big play yet this year. I want to be the guy to spark it. But whoever can get it done, please get it done."

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