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Terps Trio: Game ball controversy, Old Dominion, signing off

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Baltimore Sun reporters Jeff Barker and Don Markus and editor Matt Bracken weigh in on the three biggest topics of the past week in Maryland sports.

What was Maryland’s reaction to the story that a player could not actually keep a “game ball” awarded by coaches following an outstanding performance?

Jeff Barker: Frustration, I think.

This was a story disclosed in pieces rather than all at once. That’s not uncommon. It’s like painting a picture. Sometimes you just need to keep going until the image begins to sharpen.

My first story reported that linebacker Marcus Whitfield was not permitted to collect his game ball from the FIU game until he was finished with his Maryland football career.

When I reached out to the NCAA for comment, spokeswoman Stacey Osburn told me in an email: “The answer is yes, a student-athlete can keep a game ball.”

But that wasn’t the whole story. It turns out that the NCAA legislative services staff had done an “interpretation” in 1996 and concluded, in fact, that “it is not permissible to award game balls to student-athletes for specialized performances in particular contests or events.”

Maryland says it relied on that interpretation. Schools must also adhere to monetary limits on gifts to its athletes.

I returned to the NCAA, which said the Division I Board of Directors had instructed the staff in May to review such interpretations -- and had decided awarding game balls was fine.

I then asked the NCAA: “Is this a final decision?”

“It's final and in place,” came the response. "A student-athlete can accept a game ball."

Bottom line: My sense is that Maryland believes it took an unwarranted hit when it was merely trying to follow the rules.

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sunjeffbarker

Should Saturday’s matchup against Old Dominion be considered a potential “trap” game for the Terps?

Don Markus: In Randy Edsall’s first two years, Maryland struggled against Football Championship Subdivision teams.

In 2011, the Terps were leading Towson 3-0 at the half and beat the Tigers 28-3, but Towson committed a bunch of turnovers playing without injured quarterback Grant Enders. Given what Enders and the Tigers did the rest of the season in winning the Colonial Athletic Association title for the first time in school history, I thought Maryland was fortunate playing the game early on.

In last season’s opener, the Terps beat William & Mary, 7-6, and were lucky to do that. Freshman quarterback Perry Hills, playing for an injured C.J. Brown, threw three interceptions and fumbled once. Trailing 6-0 early in the fourth quarter, Maryland needed a touchdown by Justus Pickett and a stalwart effort by the defense to avoid an embarrassing defeat.

Saturday’s game against Old Dominion should be different.

In his first game back since the 2011 season, Brown finished 20 of 23 for 281 yards and three touchdowns passing, and rushed 11 times for 105 yards and two other scores last week against Florida International. The receiver combination of sophomore Stefon Diggs and junior college transfer Deon Long combined for 14 catches for 208 yards and two touchdowns.

Though Old Dominion is making the transition from FCS to the Football Bowl Subdivision, it is a team that Edsall won’t allow his Terps to take lightly. He will certainly point to the seven upsets by FBS teams last week as well as the fact that junior quarterback Taylor Heinicke set an FCS record for passing yardage last season. Heinicke torched East Carolina for 338 yards and three TDs in a 52-38 loss last week.

While there are still a lot of question marks on the defense, Maryland turned in a solid effort against FIU and showed that it could pressure the quarterback. I think the biggest difference now between the Terps this season and during Edsall’s first two seasons is the team’s depth, and given the difference in scholarship limits as the Monarchs make their way up to FBS, that should be in Maryland’s favor.

I don't think the Terps will be looking past Old Dominion, though the next two games are critical to Maryland's success this season. There's the visit back for Edsall to Connecticut for the first time since leaving in the dead of night after the Fiesta Bowl. Then there's the border-war rivalry game with West Virginia in Baltimore.

The biggest problem with the question I raised is the idea that there is such a thing as a “trap” game for a team that has only won six times in the past two years. Even Edsall should try to dismiss that notion with his players so it’s not even in their heads when they take the field at Byrd Stadium Saturday.

Just trying to help you out, Coach.

don.markus@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sportsprof56

This will be your last appearance in Terps Trio. What’s up with that?

Matt Bracken: Fair question, but a difficult one to answer. The simple explanation is that after a little more than six years in Sports (including the last three-and-change as a deputy sports editor), I’m leaving the department to become The Sun’s Director of Audience Engagement/Development. In my new role, I’ll coordinate social media and digital projects. It’s a move that I’m really looking forward to making, though it doesn’t come without a healthy dose of nostalgia.

I came to Baltimore in July 2007 and launched Recruiting Report about a month later. There weren’t a ton of newspapers doing recruiting coverage back then, but it quickly became clear that the interest in this market warranted it. I covered the on-again, off-again Terps recruiting sagas of Gus Gilchrist and Tyree Evans and Terrence Ross and Born Ready; learned about the Maryland basketball program's seemingly never-ending quest to please an amorphous body of hoops brokers known only as "Baltimore"; wrote a timeline of recruiting frustrations under Gary Williams that prompted one reader to consider walking "in front of a truck now"; detailed the commitments of luminaries such as Steve Goins and Jin Soo Kim and Haukur Palsson; and most recently, chronicled Mark Turgeon's transformation of Maryland into one of the country's top recruiting powers.

For various reasons, I'll look back fondly on all of those stories. And I'll miss learning more about Maryland's recruits before they enroll at College Park through commitment stories and Q&As, which were equal parts entertaining (Evan Mulrooney referring to himself as a "manimal") and predictive (A.J. Francis revealing that he had a "split personality") for me.

I'll still do some occasional sportswriting for The Sun, mostly on Baltimore-area basketball recruiting and local college hoops. Covering Maryland recruiting how it deserves to be covered would be too much of a beast for me to continue to handle. But Sun readers will be in capable hands on all things Terps, with Jeff Barker and Don Markus -- two great guys who I've been lucky enough to work with for the past several years -- continuing to man the beat. Tracking the Terps will still post a weekly recruiting feature from InsideMDSports and Jeff Ermann, another great guy and friend of the blog from Day 1. And Jonas Shaffer, a former Diamondback sports editor and two-time Baltimore Sun intern, will join the sports department and cover Terps football recruiting for this blog, in addition to fulfilling his duties as an editor/producer. If you want to familiarize yourself with Jonas' excellent writing, check out this piece on Adrian Bowie and this one on Sean Mosley

So that's it for me, Terps fans. Thanks so much for reading, emailing and commenting over these past six years. It's been my pleasure.

mbracken@baltsun.com

twitter.com/mattbracken

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