EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Before last season, Maryland football coach Ralph Friedgen bellyached about how much his team had to work on. Then the Terrapins won their first six games on the way to the school's best campaign in 24 years.
Friedgen had been doing some of the same in the past month, but his 21st-ranked team had a rougher start last night, losing to Notre Dame, 22-0, in the Kickoff Classic before 72,903 at Giants Stadium.
He anticipated that youth might be a factor - with several first-year players performing - but that still didn't temper his disappointment as his team was outgained 356-133. "We're better than we showed tonight," Friedgen said.
The game - the final Classic as the NCAA phases out preseason games - represented a triumphant debut for Tyrone Willingham, the first African-American to serve as Notre Dame's head coach, and a dubious one for Scott McBrien and the Maryland offense.
Nicholas Setta kicked a school-record five field goals, Vontez Duff broke the game open with a 76-yard punt return for a touchdown and the Terrapins committed three turnovers during their first season-opening loss since 1997.
McBrien, who was replaced at one point by Chris Kelley, produced a paltry 84 yards through the air, 53 in the first three quarters, just the beginning of an awful day for an offense that averaged 439 yards last season, while suffering the team's first shutout since a 23-0 loss to Clemson in 1998.
"We had a few kids who lost their poise, we didn't make many plays and give credit to Notre Dame," Friedgen said. "They played better than we did. We didn't win the one-on-one battles, and we were one-on-one a lot."
It began with the running game. The absence of Bruce Perry (out three to seven weeks with a groin injury) was felt as his replacements, Jason Crawford and Mario Merrills, combined for 22 yards.
Crawford, a sophomore and the veteran of the group as judged by playing time, couldn't find holes. Nor could Merrills, a Wilde Lake alum who entered in the second quarter.
In fairness to Crawford and Merrills, the offensive line didn't create many holes against an Irish defense that allowed only 132.3 yards on the ground last season. Maryland's line, a strength last year, has been using nearly every player at several positions to maximize depth it doesn't have.
"We were beating ourselves a little bit," said center Todd Wike. "I don't think we were coming off the ball as hard as we could and we were probably missing some assignments out there. ... We played all last week with that line and did fine, so I don't think we can use that as an excuse."
Maryland's receivers completed the futility, unable to get open and often dropping the ball when it came to them. No wonder the team's defense spent nearly two-thirds of the game on the field.
"We played our hearts out," defensive end Durrand Roundtree said. "We did our jobs. We didn't allow them to score a touchdown, and that's what we're there for."
Passing in the first half ran counter to expectations. Maryland believed it might be able to throw against the Irish, with what it thought would be a deeper corps of receivers.
McBrien, a transfer from West Virginia who threw for 342 yards in a game vs. the Irish two years ago, earned last night's start over Kelley by dint of experience and a quicker, more accurate arm.
But the Terps couldn't move the ball through the air at all in the first half. McBrien completed only three of his first nine passes in the first quarter for 22 yards and the team's first drive ended when he missed an open fullback, Chad Killian, and went instead to Jafar Williams on a pass intercepted by Notre Dame cornerback Shane Walton at the 13:49 mark.
"Our quarterbacks struggled in the decision-making," Friedgen said. "A lot of times we were throwing into double coverage, and they did a good job of taking away our running game."
Overall, Maryland accounted for 79 yards before halftime.
"If we'd gotten a few calls here and there, maybe we could have gotten into a better rhythm," said McBrien, who completed nine of 23 passes with two interceptions, and Kelley went 3-for-9 for 33 yards and one interception. "We've just got to win the one-on-one matchups outside. But it does help to run the football and we didn't run the football tonight."
The saving grace for Maryland was that Notre Dame only had a 9-0 halftime lead to show for a 187-79 advantage in yardage.
Maryland coaches suspected that with quarterback Carlyle Holiday -who had several 100-yard rushing days last year - Notre Dame might occasionally lean on the option despite its installation of a West Coast offense.
That option never appeared. Instead, Holliday fared well in the short passing game, completing 17 of 27 passes overall for 226 yards.
Maryland began the second half able to stop Notre Dame. But the Terps had no luck trying to move the ball, then Brooks Barnard - who had been having a rough night already - made a 48-yard punt that was returned 76 yards for a touchdown by Duff and put the Irish up 16-0 with 10:28 left in the third quarter.
Even when something went well for Maryland, it soured quickly. Steve Suter's 51-yard kickoff return, following Duff's touchdown, was followed by three negative yardage plays and Barnard was punting again.
Minutes later another Setta field goal made it 19-0.
NOTE: Starting inside linebacker Leon Joe did not make the trip to New Jersey, serving a one-game suspension for an undisclosed violation of team rules.
Next for Terps
Site:Byrd Stadium, College Park
When:Saturday, 6 p.m.
Yesterday: Lost to Iowa, 57-21