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Schmuck: Improved strength in the trenches helps Terps football make good first impression

COLLEGE PARK — It was only the first dress rehearsal for the upcoming Big Ten season, but Maryland coach Randy Edsall had every reason to be pleased with the way his team fended off an early challenge and asserted itself on both sides of the ball in Saturday's 50-21 victory over Richmond at Byrd Stadium.

It really wasn't about the score, of course. The Spiders are a Football Championship Subdivision team that didn't figure to match the Terps up front. It was the way both the offensive and defensive lines executed the game plan and produced optimal results, something they will have to prove they can do on a regular basis to have a successful season in the Big Ten.

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Maryland rushed for 341 yards and averaged 7.6 yards per carry. Brandon Ross set a career high with 150 yards, and backup running backs Ty Johnson and Wes Brown combined for 157 more. Richmond managed 3.4 yards per rush.

The Terps O-line did not allow a sack while the defense got to Spiders quarterback Kyle Lauletta four times.

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That doesn't mean that Maryland is ready to shake up the balance of power in one of college football's most bruising conferences, but this is what Edsall — and his team's fan following — needed to see in the season opener.

"I talked to our team last night and told them, with the first game, the one thing we need to do is make a good first impression," Edsall said. "I thought we came out and made a good first impression. There are things we have to continue to get better at and we will, but I thought there were a lot of really good things that took place today."

No doubt about that. Flashy return man Will Likely broke a 76-year-old Big Ten record with 233 punt return yards. Starting quarterback Perry Hills shook off some early mistakes to deliver a solid 2015 debut with a 12-for-21 passing performance that produced 138 yards and two touchdowns. Good way to start.

The Terps left every impression that they should be more than equal to their non-conference schedule. But it's obviously too early to get any sense of how they might stack up against the big dogs they're going to face in October and November.

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What Edsall does know — and has said repeatedly over the past several months — is that their ability to be competitive in the Big Ten's East Division and earn a bowl bid for the third straight year will depend on how much they have improved in the trenches.

"One of the things we wanted to do was be able to run the football," Edsall said, "and I think a lot of that is cohesiveness, guys playing together. Regardless of who it is, you've still got to block them. We were able to do that. The thing that's going to help us is to be able to run the ball and also get a play-action passing game going.

"I was pleased, because it wasn't like we had one guy doing it. We had three guys that were productive today running the ball. So our guys knew what they were doing. We know it's going to get tougher week to week. But for us for a starting point, we accomplished what we set out to accomplish today."

Though the Terps surprised some people with the way they held their own in their debut Big Ten season, the biggest takeaway for the team's returning linemen was the way they were manhandled by Stanford in the Foster Farms Bowl. Their mission since has been to get bigger and stronger on both lines and there was evidence on Saturday that they have done just that.

It was most obvious on the offensive front, but only because of the huge running lanes that opened up all day.

"They've gotten so much better since last year in the Stanford game," Ross said. "They are really just getting off the ball low, opening up holes, and really as backs we were just trying to see them to hit them today."

Junior defensive lineman Quinton Jefferson, who made six tackles and two sacks, said that the guys on the defensive front have worked extremely hard to get ready for the challenge ahead, but he's not ready to declare that mission accomplished.

"It's hard to say off the first game," he said. "We're going to see down the line, but I definitely feel good about this unit I'm on. We have a lot of tough, hard-nosed guys who work hard and are just hungry. Sometimes, I feel like we're a pack of wild lions out there just trying to get to the quarterback and try to get to the ball carrier."

That attitude should serve them well when they host Michigan in their first conference game on Oct. 3. But the ability to stand up to the beasts of the Big Ten East might depend on how much better they can get during the next three non-conference games.

"We're definitely looking forward to those games down the road," Jefferson said, "but we're trying to focus on the here and now — the next opponent, Bowling Green — so we're going to lock in on them and when we get there, we get there, but I'm definitely excited and the rest of the unit is definitely excited for those games."

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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