The football seasons at Maryland and Navy turned on the health of their quarterbacks — in College Park for the worse, in Annapolis for the better.
When the Terps take the field at Byrd Stadium against Georgia Tech on Saturday, freshman Shawn Petty will be Maryland's fifth — count 'em, fifth — starting quarterback this season. Petty, who came to College Park as a linebacker after playing mostly quarterback at Eleanor Roosevelt in Prince George's County, is returning to his old position after freshman Caleb Rowe became the third Terps quarterback to suffer a torn anterior cruciate ligament this season and the third to be sidelined in two staggering weeks.
When the Midshipmen play Florida Atlantic a few hours later at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, freshman Keenan Reynolds will be starting his fourth straight game and Navy will be going after its fifth straight win with hopes of becoming bowl-eligible. Reynolds replaced injured junior Trey Miller in the fourth quarter of an Oct. 6 game at Air Force — with Navy trailing by eight points and about to start the season 1-4 — and will likely be Navy's starting quarterback for three more years if he stays healthy.
Heather Dinich, who covered the Terps for The Baltimore Sun and now writes about the Atlantic Coast Conference and college football for ESPN.com, sees some intriguing storylines unfolding this weekend in College Park and Annapolis involving the fate of the state's two Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
"It's kind of ironic that we're talking Maryland and Navy since Maryland's facing Navy's old coach, Paul Johnson," Dinich said Friday. "You're going to see a game that looks like two academy teams playing. I think that you're going to see Maryland throw it less than Georgia Tech does. The other thing is that Paul Johnson has a quarterback situation on his hands and Navy's quarterback might be the best of the three [starting]."
Before this seemingly unprecedented string of injuries started in College Park, the Terps appeared on the verge of going from a 2-10 disaster in Randy Edsall's first season to the brink of bowl eligibility in his second. As Perry Hills, Devin Burns and then Rowe went down — this after returning starter C.J. Brown tore his ACL in the preseason — the Terps lost a string of heartbreakers that makes this week's game against the struggling Yellow Jackets a must win, though far from a sure win.
"The thing that's amazing to me that even with Perry Hills, I think Maryland could have gotten to a bowl game this year," Dinich said. "I've never seen anything like what's happened to Maryland. I'm going to Maryland's game specifically to watch a freshman linebacker play quarterback. It's one of the most interesting things happening in the ACC."
If Petty can figure out a way to get the ball to freshman star receiver Stefon Diggs on every play — or at least three of every four — maybe Maryland can turn this season into a three-win improvement. If the Terps could somehow beat Georgia Tech and manage a win from the last three games — which seems unlikely with Clemson, Florida State and North Carolina on the schedule — Edsall might even get a few ACC Coach of the Year votes.
After hearing Edsall call the Terps unlucky earlier this week, Dinich said she "wrote a Halloween post and said he was cursed."
Edsall seems as unflappable as he was a year ago, but this time it looks like he's providing stability rather than contributing to the chaos.
"This is only, what the third or fourth time we've been through it this season?" Edsall said earlier this week, showing a rare sense of humor. "Our guys know how to handle it. We know that Shawn is the guy, so everybody has to rally around him. It's not all on Shawn. Shawn's just one part of this team, and I think that's what happens with this team concept, that team mentality, those are the things that help you get through the obstacles that you have to overcome."
It's an interesting contrast to what happened last year, when Edsall seemed to waffle between Danny O'Brien and Brown for nearly an entire season before O'Brien's year — and ultimately his career at Maryland — ended when he broke his arm against Notre Dame. (Given the year Edsall has had with his quarterbacks and O'Brien has had at Wisconsin, both might have benefited from looking at a crystal ball at the height of their much-publicized breakup.)
It's also interesting to look at how Ken Niumatalolo handled his own quarterback situation. If Edsall had difficulty showing loyalty last season since he had not recruited O'Brien, Niumatalolo nearly showed too much with Miller, who had patiently waited his turn while playing behind Ricky Dobbs and Kriss Proctor as a freshman and Proctor last season.
The first four games with Miller at quarterback, during which he committed 10 of the team's 12 turnovers, made the Midshipmen look more like the teams of Charlie Weatherbie and George Chaump rather than Niumatalolo and Johnson. It's quite a coincidence that Miller's best game of the season came right before he left with a sprained ankle against Air Force.
In a month, he has quickly become Wally Pipp with shoulder pads, unlikely ever to see more than mop-up duty unless Reynolds gets hurt. That has happened often in the triple-option, which hasn't had a quarterback play an entire season since Lamar Owens in 2005. As long as he stays healthy, Reynolds not only has turned around the season, but he also has suddenly made Navy's future seem as bright as it did when Dobbs was the quarterback.
With a victory Saturday against Florida Atlantic — a 12-year-old program started by former Baltimore Colts coach Howard Schnellenberger — the Mids will earn their ninth bowl invitation in the past 10 years. Navy will likely continue to be a bowl team as long as Reynolds remains behind center at Navy. The situation in College Park is clouded, and not just for this season, as the Terps look forward to having Gilman's Shane Cockerille coming in to join the quarterback competition.
After playing at least five at the position this season, here's hoping that Edsall has to play only one next season.
At this point, he might even take two or three.
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