Matt Canada came to Maryland last January with both a reputation for being an offensive guru and a coaching vagabond, having worked at six schools in the previous eight years.
While Canada seemed to have a short shelf life at several stops, including a one-season stay at LSU and Wisconsin, his ability to call plays was rarely questioned.
Which made Maryland’s 35-14 loss to 15-point underdog Temple in the home opener last week more than a bit perplexing to Canada, the team’s interim coach and offensive coordinator.
The Terps produced no offensive touchdowns and a total of 195 yards, the third-fewest for a Canada-coached offense in his career. It left the 46-year-old Canada at a loss.
How could a rushing offense that scored on five straight second-half drives the week before at Bowling Green — in a rainstorm, no less — be so inept in the sunshine at Maryland Stadium?
At his postgame news conference that seemed more like a confessional, Canada vowed his team’s offensive performance would improve, as would he as a play-caller, when the Terps returned for Saturday’s Big Ten opener against Minnesota.
Asked during Tuesday’s Big Ten coaches’ teleconference how he could improve, Canada said: “We’re going to continue to find ways to put our players in position to make plays — that’s our job. To get our players off to a good start, to get our players to have momentum, to have our players to feel good. Whatever that is.
“As I said, there’s a lot of different things we could have done better, but ultimately, I’m the offensive coordinator. When you look at the offensive production that we did not have, and the way that we played, I feel that it falls on me. We’re going to do a better job all the way around and hopefully it’ll be a much better result for us.”
Getting redshirt freshman quarterback Kasim Hill off to a fast start seems to be a key.
When the Terps jumped out to a 24-7 lead in the season opener against Texas at FedEx Field in a 34-29 victory, Hill made plays with his arm and his legs. But in the past two games, including in a 45-14 win at Bowling Green, Hill struggled.
“There was a multitude of things,” Canada said about Hill at a news conference Monday. “Sometimes it’s a little bit of pressure, sometimes the routes are a little off, maybe the call was poor at the time, so again: It’s 11 men doing their job.
“Kasim and Pig [redshirt sophomore quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome] both had a couple plays that if I had them come in here, they would say they wish they had done this or that, but again, I’m coaching them, I’m calling the plays, and he’ll play better, they’ll play better, I’ll coach better.”
Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck, whose relationship with Canada dates to when Fleck was a wide receiver at Northern Illinois in the early 2000s and Canada rose from the team’s running backs coach to offensive coordinator, is expecting that to happen.
“His offense allows people, allows the quarterback, I think, to have even a bigger impact not only through the air, but on the ground,” Fleck said on the coaches’ teleconference. “The one thing I think Matt Canada does a great job of, he involves everybody.
“Whether it’s the fly-sweep motion, whether it’s the tight ends, whether it’s the receivers down the field, whether the quarterback’s running, everybody’s involved. That takes a lot of talent as a play-caller, getting everybody touches.”
That can also be a problem, trying to figure out when to call a player’s number, especially at running back.
“I think that's kind of always the dilemma when you talk about play calling or when you have something that's working with one guy. Do you keep doing it until they stop it multiple times?” Canada said. “Well, then all of a sudden you're at third down and that's not a good situation. Do you mix it up to the point that you get away from what's working?
“Both plays and players, our offense is built on a lot of guys touching the ball. That's something that we take a lot of pride in. I think that's something that keeps our players excited and keeps our players engaged on offense.”
After leading the Terps with five catches for 73 yards and a touchdown, as well as rushing six times for another 23 yards in the win over Texas, graduate wide receiver Taivon Jacobs spent most of the Bowling Green game blocking when the team rushed for 444 yards.
Jacobs, who has played for four coaches (including Mike Locksley as an interim after Randy Edsall was fired in 2015) doesn’t fault Canada with forgetting about him. Jacobs had two catches for seven yards in the loss to Temple.
“We don’t single out anybody. This is a team game, a team effort,” Jacobs said after practice Tuesday. “It wasn’t just him, it was the overall unit, the organization. We all took the blame for that. Like I said, we’re going to keep moving forward, take one game at a time.”
Fleck talked about how when Canada joined the coaching staff at Northern Illinois in 1998, the team had just endured an 0-11 season and was riding a 26-game losing streak, the longest in college football at the time. When he left after the 2003 season, the team was 10-2.
“He was as one of those coaches who always made you feel like you were better than you actually were, and you actually believed,” Fleck said. “He was one of those guys that brought the best out of you. You can see exactly why he is where he is.”
As for Canada’s play-calling, Fleck said: “He’s an aggressive play-caller. He loves to put up points. He knows how to control the football.”
Canada recalled what longtime Northern Illinois coach Joe Novak, who rose from the defensive ranks, told the 30-year-old assistant after promoting him to run the offense
“I have one piece of advice for you,’’ Novak told Canada. “You offensive guys, sometimes the plays work and you change them because you think you have to call all the plays on your sheet. If a play works, keep calling it.”
That’s why Canada said he had Hill keep handing off to his running backs at Bowling Green. And that’s why Canada seemed to be struggling with his play-calling last week against Temple, since nothing was working.
While blaming himself on nearly two dozen occasions after the Temple game, Canada showed that he had maintained his self-deprecating sense of humor. Asked if was going to change his play calls for Minnesota, Canada smiled.
“Yeah, I’m going to call the ones that work from now on,” he said.