Improving Terps brace for 3 elite hurdles

Games against Virginia Tech, Florida State and Boston College will determine how high they can climb

College Football

October 13, 2005|By HEATHER A. DINICH | HEATHER A. DINICH,SUN REPORTER

COLLEGE PARK -- It was a statement win for Maryland, one that showcased an offense that had been dormant for nearly a year and legitimized a chance at a bowl appearance.

The young, unproven Terps had just shocked then-No. 19 Virginia with a 45-33 win before a homecoming crowd at Byrd Stadium.

As good as it was, Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said that Oct. 1 game can't be the "high point" of the season.

The only way it won't is if his team defeats somebody better. There are five opportunities remaining. Three are ranked teams, two of which are undefeated. Four of the five teams rank no worse than 22nd in the nation in total defense.

The Terps' toughest stretch begins a week from today against No. 3 Virginia Tech (6-0, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference), which leads the Coastal Division.

While the Terps (4-2, 2-1 ACC) have shown signs of improvement each week, they have often been tempered by mistakes, leaving the team's true potential a mystery.

In a week's span, the Terps went from racking up more than 500 yards against Virginia to trailing 7-0 last weekend against Temple, one of the most abysmal programs in the country. Before Maryland can close the gap between mediocrity and the ACC's elite, coaches and players agreed they still have some distance to travel.

"I think there's a lot of room for improvement," defensive coordinator Gary Blackney said. "There's no question it's a very difficult stretch ... We're not anywhere near where we need to be at this point for that stretch, but, if the kids continue to work hard and we continue to make progress, then who knows?"

The Hokies, No. 4 Florida State and No. 14 Boston College enter this weekend with a combined record of 16-1. Virginia Tech and N.C. State outscored the Terps, 68-9, last fall. The Terps need to beat two of those three teams - if they don't defeat North Carolina - to go to a bowl game.

Offensive lineman Jared Gaither said the team still hasn't "put it all together yet."

"I wouldn't settle for this at any point in time," Gaither said. "I think we can always do better - a lot better - and make less mistakes, less turnovers."

Progress has been evident. Maryland went from a 56-yard rushing performance in a Sept. 10 loss to Clemson to five rushing touchdowns Saturday against Temple. Three backs have at least 50 carries and three touchdowns. Yet the team has only been successful on 32 percent of its third-down conversions. Maryland has been in the red zone 30 times this season and come away with only 15 touchdowns.

"We're growing a lot," quarterback Sam Hollenbach said. "That's something you can't do in practice. On Saturdays, you come together more."

Hollenbach has thrown for 215 or more yards in five of his six starts, and leads the ACC in total offense with 264.3 yards per game. The fact that four players have at least 18 receptions shows he is able to read coverages.

"He's been a difference-maker in our offense," offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe said.

Of course, there is also some more tangible tweaking the Terps can do - like shoring up their red zone defense. Opponents have scored 16 of 17 times (13 touchdowns) inside Maryland's 20-yard line. And Maryland's rushing defense still remains next-to-last in the ACC.

Still, Friedgen has taken solace in the team's small gains each week.

"Even when we weren't successful on Saturdays, I could see us improving," he said. "I'm hoping this team will continue to improve. If it does, we're going to have a good football season. If it doesn't, we won't."

heather.dinich@baltsun.com

No. 3 Virginia Tech@Maryland Oct. 20, 7:45 p.m., ESPN, 1300 AM, 105.7 FM

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