Terps hitting their stride even as they limp along

October 07, 2007|By RICK MAESE

COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK-- --They've reached the season's midway point, but already a brief reintroduction is probably in order. The 2007 Maryland Football Team Version 2.0 isn't like the team that began the season last month.

Starting quarterback? Wearing street clothes.

Top offensive lineman? Done for the season.

Defensive leader? After 17 straight starts, he didn't dress either.

Defensive leader's replacement? Carted off the field and airlifted to the hospital.

You know it's bad when a game ends and half the team reports to the locker room and the other half to the emergency room. Yet, here was Jaimie Thomas, after Maryland's 28-26 win over Georgia Tech yesterday, counting the Terps' blessings.

"I think we're in God's favor right now," said Thomas, the junior offensive guard.

Huh? In His favor? More like in His crosshairs.

The progression of the Terps' season is as impressive as it is confusing. As Maryland demonstrated again yesterday, this team continues to improve from week to week. The Terps show more and more promise, and at the season's halfway mark there's plenty of reason for hope.

At the same time, though, each Saturday presents a new round of obstacles. You have to wonder how exactly their long-term growth has been compromised by the endless caravan that runs from the field to the trainers' room.

Thomas' contentment stems from the team's performance in the face of adversity. Even as teammates trade in their pads for hospital gowns, the Terps have hardly shown ill effects.

Quarterback Jordan Steffy went down midway through last week's game against Rutgers. Sophomore Chris Turner took his spot (maybe permanently) and led the Terps to their two biggest wins of the season.

Linebacker Erin Henderson, the Terps' leading tackler (averaging 11 a game), hurt his knee against Rutgers. Junior Dave Philistin shouldered a bigger load yesterday and recorded 21 tackles against the Yellow Jackets.

"That shows you the character of our team," Thomas said. "We've had some guys beat up, we've lost some guys, but we keep fighting through."

It makes it difficult to forecast what exactly might be in store in the season's second half. We do know, though, that the team that will finish the season is different from the one that started it. Despite the injuries and obstacles, Terps 2.0 sure feels like an upgrade.

(One tiny bit of evidence: In five games before yesterday, the Terps' longest pass play was 39 yards; just a few minutes into the second quarter yesterday, they had managed pass plays measuring 78, 47 and 44 yards.)

Even though their learning curve seems to match last season's on paper (both teams were 4-2 at the season's midpoint), coach Ralph Friedgen resisted the comparison.

"Last year's team questioned whether they could win, and then they kind of got the hang of it," Friedgen said. "I don't think this year's team questions that."

It's not just some of the names that have been changed. From the sideline to the stands, there's a different vibe surrounding the Terps, who were near meltdown just a couple of weeks ago.

Wins over Rutgers, ranked No. 10 at the time, and Georgia Tech, ranked as high as No. 15 this season and one week removed from upsetting No. 13 Clemson, are the types of victories that resurface later on the schedule, inspiring locker room confidence that a team like Maryland didn't have early in the season.

"There's a love on our team," Philistin said. "Everybody looks at each other - I look at the guy next to me, and he's looking at me - and it's all nonverbal. You know you've got to get it done."

It's the same buoyancy that allowed last season's team to win games that it really shouldn't have won. And it's the same thing that's needed to propel this season's team to overcome its thinning roster. (That's the word Friedgen used, which might make him the first coach to look at five 300-pounders and call his offensive line "thin.")

The Terps' evolution has been slow, more play-to-play than week-to-week. But the differences are profound. You saw it in the first quarter yesterday when Turner found Jason Goode's outstretched fingertips near midfield for what turned into a 78-yard touchdown.

And you saw it again in the fourth quarter, when Georgia Tech trailed by two points and was flirting with the red zone. The Terps' defense resisted, and the Yellow Jackets - who hurt themselves with a late 10-yard holding penalty - missed a 52-yard field-goal attempt in the final minute that might have won the game.

Neither the offensive strike nor the defensive stand was a reasonable expectation just a few weeks ago. But that was a different time, and that was a different team. That team blew a 21-point lead against Wake Forest. Yesterday, the Terps were on the verge of losing an 18-point lead. This time, they dug their heels in the dirt.

"I think we've learned our lesson," Turner said.

Their struggles have formed their identity. Or transformed their identity. That would've sounded like a scary proposition in August. But it sure feels like a saving grace right now.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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