It has been awhile since the Maryland Terrapins football program has had an afternoon like this, so you can forgive Randy Edsall and his players for feeling pretty good about the way they manhandled Florida International on Saturday at Byrd Stadium.
The opponent was convenient. The Golden Panthers won just three games last year and may not win that many this season, but that's a detail for another day. The Terps weren't the only team to open against a non-conference creampuff this weekend, just the only one to finish a disappointing 2012 season with a linebacker playing quarterback.
That's why C.J. Brown's triumphant return to the huddle was such a revelation. That's why it was so important for flashy playmaker Stefon Diggs to pick up where he left off in his fantastic freshman season. That's why the long list of "first-time-since" statistical achievements in the first half were significant in spite of the lopsided result. If Florida International turned out to be just the team to give the Maryland football program a big ego-boost at what appears to be a pivotal juncture in the still-young Edsall era, well, thanks for coming.
The Terps needed to get off to a good start — and they did, scoring on their first four possessions of a game for the first time since 2010. They needed Brown to step back into the leadership role he vacated when he became the first of four Maryland quarterbacks to suffer season-ending injuries last year. Mission accomplished.
Brown, in his first game since 2011, was simply terrific. He executed Maryland's read-option offense so efficiently that the Panthers defenders were probably still trying to figure out where the ball was when they were boarding their bus to the airport.
He rushed for 105 yards, passed for 281 yards and accounted for five touchdowns before giving way to backup Caleb Rowe in the third quarter. If he played for Florida or Ohio State, the SportsCenter types would already be handicapping his Heisman Trophy chances, but the Terps are just happy to be starting fresh with some healthy humans to put behind center.
"It makes you sleep better at night, that's for sure,'' Edsall said. "I slept pretty good last night. I'm out there every day with these guys and I see how they handle themselves. Your quarterback sets the tempo for who you are as a team, and it's not only his abilities, but how he handles himself. C.J. handles himself so beautifully in terms of how he conducts his own life and the character and integrity and everything that's about him. That just rubs off on other people.
"It's very comforting that you have that guy out there, and Caleb [Rowe] has grown up as well. He was out there today and it wasn't as much of a pressure-packed situation for him, but I saw him handling the huddle better and handling that situation better than he did a year ago. Experience is a great teacher for us all."
They could have run the score up into the fifties, but Edsall called off the dogs in the third quarter — no doubt happy to keep his No. 1 QB out of harm's way after making such a resounding statement in the first half. It was still a very uplifting victory that should send the Terps into next week's game against Old Dominion and Edsall's September homecoming in Connecticut on Sept. 14 with a ton of confidence.
Those games are not big Atlantic Coast Conference showdowns, but they are very important to a program that had not recorded a victory since defeating Virginia last Oct. 13. The Terps need to send a message to their fans that they truly are rising from the ashes of that injury-ravaged 2012 season, and it would certainly help if they could carry a 3-0 record into their Baltimore showcase game against West Virginia on Sept. 21 at M&T Bank Stadium.
Edsall will be the first to tell you that there is a lot of work to do between now and then. For Brown and the offense to perform as well as they did Saturday when they come up against their tough conference opponents, the Terps offensive line will have to grow up in a hurry. The defense was stubborn, holding the Panthers to just 171 total yards and just three first downs in the first half, but Edsall didn't want anybody thinking that they had anything figured out after the first game of the new season.
"We're getting a lot closer to being where we need to be,'' he said, "but we're not there yet."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.