Maryland finally has learned how to finish a game. Now the Terrapins must prove they also know how to finish a season.
Maryland (4-1, 1-0 ACC) already has doubled its win total from last season and joins Florida State and Virginia Tech as the only ACC teams unbeaten in conference play. But are the Terps really as good as their record? The answer could come Saturday, when Maryland plays its first ACC road game against a Clemson team that has lost three in a row.
"The last time we were away, we didn't do very well against West Virginia [a 31-17 loss]," Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said. "And I am hopeful we will handle the crowd noise better than we did then. Hopefully we will learn from that experience.
"I think we will find out just how good we are, going against a Clemson team that I know will be ready to play."
Friedgen has delivered one of the conference's biggest turnarounds thus far. After Maryland finished 2-10 last season, Friedgen headed into this season occupying the hottest seat in the ACC. He responded to that adversity as well as anyone could have reasonably expected.
New Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson told The Baltimore Sun this week that Friedgen was doing "a fantastic job," though he wouldn't guarantee the coach's return in 2011.
That's probably the right move. It's too early to tell whether Maryland's comeback has staying power. The Terps have been outgained in three of their four wins, so there's ample evidence to suggest they're headed for a slump.
Then again, Maryland deserves credit for figuring out how to win in less-than-ideal situations.
Injuries have created plenty of uncertainty at quarterback. Jamarr Robinson's shoulder problem caused Danny O'Brien to start the past two games, becoming the first Maryland freshman quarterback in 11 years to crack the starting lineup. Friedgen hasn't indicated which quarterback will start Saturday.
Maryland has continued to win because it does the little things well while getting big performances from a few star players. After going 2-5 in games decided by seven or fewer points last season, the Terps have figured out how to win the close ones this season.
"One of the things I thought we did in the last two games that we didn't do last year is we were able to finish games and compete," Friedgen said.
They're finishing games because their big-play performers have delivered when it matters most. Wide receiver Torrey Smith leads the ACC in all-purpose yardage and averages 23.8 yards per catch, second among all FBS players with at least 15 receptions. Tailbacks Davin Meggett and Da'Rel Scott average more than five yards per carry each. Linebacker Alex Wujciak averages 10.4 tackles per game to rank 10th in the nation. Tony Logan is the nation's top punt returner and has scored in each of Maryland's past two games.
Smith's 68-yard touchdown catch broke a 21-21 tie late in the third quarter of a 42-28 victory over Florida International. Logan's 84-yard punt return helped Maryland take the lead for good two weeks ago in a 21-16 triumph over Duke.
The Terps also are taking better care of the ball. Maryland ranks fourth in the nation in turnover margin with 12 takeaways and only four giveaways. That represents a major change from last season, when Maryland committed 24 turnovers and had 18 takeaways.
"I think each game is a learning experience," Friedgen said. "When you have positive learning experiences, I think it accelerates the learning curve. When you have a negative one, I think it delays it.
"Every good team that I have been associated with has had a confidence that good things were going to happen down the stretch."
We should know soon whether this Maryland squad belongs on that list of Friedgen's good teams.
Best matchup: Duke WRs Conner Vernon and Donovan Varner vs. Miami CBs Brandon Harris and Ryan Hill. Vernon has caught 34 passes for 548 yards to lead the ACC in both categories this year, while Varner was the conference's top receiver last season. Both went to high school at Gulliver Prep in Miami. Harris is regarded as one of the nation's top shutdown corners, and he has teamed with Hill to help give Miami the nation's fifth-ranked pass efficiency defense. Varner proved tougher for the Hurricanes to cover last season; he caught eight passes for 165 yards and a touchdown in a 34-16 loss to Miami last year, while Vernon had three catches for 52 yards. Varner also was the more productive receiver over the course of the season last year, while Vernon has emerged as Sean Renfree's go-to target this fall.
Player on the spot: Clemson RB Jamie Harper. A more fitting description may be that he's the player "off" the spot. Harper and teammate Andre Ellington had been listed as co-starters at running back throughout the season, but Harper now is officially behind Ellington on the depth chart as Clemson tries to stop a three-game losing streak. The move is understandable. Ellington has rushed for 435 yards and seven touchdowns on 66 carries this season, while Harper has gained just 238 yards and two touchdowns on 60 carries. Clemson often likes to have two running backs share the load, but it doesn't make much sense to split carries equally when one guy has been so much more effective than the other. It's up to Harper to prove he deserves a bigger role.
Numbers game: Wake Forest's 28-27 loss to Navy last week gave the Demon Deacons a 0-7 record in games decided by four or fewer points in the past two seasons. Those seven losses had an average margin of 2.6 points. In four of those games, Wake Forest led in the fourth quarter or overtime. Wake Forest's close losses last season were 24-21 to Baylor, 27-24 in overtime to Boston College, 13-10 to Navy, 28-27 to Miami and 30-27 to Georgia Tech. The Demon Deacons lost 24-20 to Georgia Tech the week before last week's one-point setback to Navy. Wake has lost each of its past two games on a touchdown pass in the final minute.
What they're saying
"I guess it's a big deal if your pinky got ripped off." -- Virginia Tech OL Greg Nosal, to The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot, about the attention he's received following the revelation that he kept playing last week after losing the half-inch tip of his left pinky finger when it jammed into another player's face mask during a victory over Central Michigan. He played with the finger wrapped in gauze and had the tip stitched back together late in the game, after Virginia Tech had built an insurmountable lead
"There's a lot of smoke around here. I mean we can't deny that there's a lot of smoke around here, which means we've got to go deep." -- North Carolina AD Dick Baddour, discussing with the (Raleigh) News & Observer how the school will tighten its compliance system in the wake of the scandal that has rocked the football program this season. North Carolina announced this week that DT Marvin Austin, DE Robert Quinn and WR Greg Little have been dismissed from the team as a result of the NCAA investigation
"We haven't achieved anything yet. We're sitting at 5-1 right now and we're not going to the ACC championship yet. We on a couple of games, four games, five games -- I mean, it's not that big of a deal. In our minds, yeah, we're going somewhere right now, but we haven't achieved anything yet." -- Florida State QB Christian Ponder, to The Orlando Sentinel
"You can blame the coach, you can blame the players. To me, it's a state of emergency right now. Everybody needs to take control, take a step back and say, 'What can I do better?' Is it the coaching? Is it the weight room? Do guys need to spend more time studying, dissecting plays?' I don't have the answer. But what I don't see is any urgency. I don't see that fight. And that is inexcusable." -- former Miami RB Melvin Bratton, to The Miami Herald, after the Hurricanes' 45-17 loss to Florida State. Bratton played on Miami's 1987 national championship team
"I feel like I made the right choice. I'm not regretting it at all. Obviously, I'd want it to go a little differently. But it's not, 'Why did I come back?' It's, 'What can I learn from this? What can I take from this that will help me out down the road?' " -- Clemson QB Kyle Parker, to The (Columbia) State, about whether he was second-guessing his decision to play football now that the Tigers have lost three consecutive games. Parker, a two-sport athlete, agreed to terms with the Colorado Rockies on a $1.4 million signing bonus only after turning down a more lucrative offer that would have required him to give up football
Etc.: Virginia will try to continue its recent mastery of North Carolina this week. Virginia has beaten North Carolina four consecutive times. The Cavaliers also have won seven of the past eight games and 10 of the past 12 matchups in the rivalry. ... Georgia Tech QB Joshua Nesbitt currently leads the ACC with 90.5 rushing yards per game. No quarterback has finished a season as the ACC's leading rusher. ... Clemson is retiring C.J. Spiller's No. 28 jersey during halftime of Saturday's game with Maryland. ... Boston College LB Luke Kuechly leads the nation with 14.2 tackles per game. Kuechly's 20 tackles last week at N.C. State represented the second-highest total of any individual this season. Notre Dame LB Manti Te'o had 21 tackles in a loss to Stanford. ... Maryland's Tony Logan is the nation's top punt returner with an average of 27.7 yards per attempt. Maryland's Torrey Smith is 85 yards away from the ACC career record for kickoff-return yardage. Smith has returned 104 kickoffs a total of 2,603 yards. The record of 2,688 yards is held by Brandon Tate, who played for North Carolina from 2005-08. ... N.C. State has blocked three punts in its past four games. ... Georgia Tech's 477 rushing yards in a 33-17 victory over Virginia last week represented the sixth-highest total in ACC history and the most since Clemson ran for 536 yards in an 81-24 victory over Wake Forest on Oct. 31, 1981. ... Virginia TE Joe Torchia is out for the season with a shoulder injury. ... Florida State is averaging 223.5 rushing yards per game, which puts the Seminoles on pace for their highest average since the 1987 season. Florida State hasn't averaged as many as 200 rushing yards per game since 1995. ... North Carolina QB T.J. Yates has been picked off just once in 160 attempts this season to give him the nation's lowest interception percentage. This comes one year after he threw more interceptions than touchdown passes. ... North Carolina hasn't committed a turnover in back-to-back games. The Tar Heels hadn't done that since 1996. ... Duke's average of 3.99 yards per rush might not seem like much to brag about, but that puts the Blue Devils on pace for their highest average since 1989. Duke already has six running plays of at least 20 yards this season. Last season, the Blue Devils had just three runs of at least 20 yards.