In the waning moments of Maryland's 28-0 loss to Michigan on Saturday at Byrd Stadium, Big Ten Network analyst Matt Millen gave his final, dire assessment of the Terps' offensive performance.
After earlier calling quarterback Caleb Rowe's third interception of the game a "stupid" throw and the third sack of backup Daxx Garman the result of "lousy" protection from the line, Millen talked about what the Terps needed to do to improve.
"Maryland has to figure out its quarterback situation," Millen said. "That was the difference in the game."
It has also been the difference in what could wind up being the worst Maryland passing offense in five years under coach Randy Edsall.
The Terps rank 103rd in the country among 127 Football Bowl Subdivision teams with 169.8 passing yards per game. The 15 interceptions are the most by any FBS team and Rowe has thrown more interceptions (12) than all but one team, Miami of Ohio, despite starting only three games and appearing in 12 of the team's 20 quarters.
"I think the issue is really just turnovers," said former Maryland quarterback and current season-ticket holder Stan Gelbaugh. "We're throwing the ball to the wrong guy; it's that simple. If we didn't turn the ball over three, four times in the passing game, things could be a lot different. I'm not saying they would be. I don't think we'd be 5-0, but we'd certainly be more competitive."
It is the worst production at quarterback since Edsall took over — and that includes 2012, when the Terps went through five quarterbacks, including presumptive starter C.J. Brown, who was hurt in the preseason.
That year began with Perry Hills, then a true freshman, as the starter and finished with Shawn Petty, a converted freshman linebacker playing a position he played only in high school. Maryland averaged 181.7 passing yards, with 17 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
This year also began with Hills, who in the season opener against Richmond made his first start since tearing his ACL in 2012 despite Edsall's insistence in the spring that Rowe would start after missing most of last season with his second ACL tear. In two starts, Hills completed 27 of 51 passes for 306 yards, with four touchdowns and two interceptions.
Rowe replaced Hills in the fourth quarter of a 48-27 loss at home to Bowling Green on Sept. 12 and immediately threw two interceptions. Rowe threw for four touchdowns in a 35-17 win at home over South Florida, but also had three more picks. He then threw four more interceptions in a 45-6 loss at West Virginia.
If the previous losses were largely on Maryland's defense surrendering three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to Bowling Green and 38 points in the first half at West Virginia, then the most recent loss to Michigan was clearly on the offense — Rowe, in particular. The Terps trailed 6-0 at half and couldn't take advantage of the turnovers their defense forced, because of Rowe's mistakes.
Asked whether the Maryland quarterbacks appear to be playing scared, Gelbaugh said, "They do sometimes look to be trying to jam it in there and are throwing it recklessly."
"I hate to say this, but this is just being a fan, it doesn't look like they're very well prepared," Gelbaugh continued. "It doesn't look like they're being schooled properly."
Said offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Locksley: "The interceptions we had Saturday came off not throwing the ball where you're supposed to throw the ball. ... You can't force the ball into double coverage. You've got to see your safeties, have good eye discipline, know what they're doing and then take what the defense gives you in terms of throwing the football."
Gelbaugh, who followed Boomer Esiason and Frank Reich both with the Terps and later to the NFL, said the position is crucial when it comes to putting together a winning program.
"It's the most important position on the field. That's an unquestionable statement," Gelbaugh said. "If you don't have a quarterback who is performing at a high level, your team is going to struggle. Period. At the very least, they can't be the reason you're losing. Week in and week out, the quarterback has contributed heavily to us losing. It was blatant last week. Last week was bad."
Locksley doesn't argue with that assessment.
"Obviously it's very frustrating," Locksley said Wednesday. "This falls on my shoulders in terms of preparing the offense to go out and execute. The quarterback play has been horrendous across the board. … As I told those guys Sunday, we've got to find a way within our unit to start it off by doing the things we're coached to do and me coming up with a play that they can execute."
Though Edsall said immediately after the Michigan game that a quarterback change seemed likely going into Saturday's game at No. 1 Ohio State, he backtracked Sunday and took the unusual move of listing Rowe, Garman and Hills as co-starters on the team's depth chart.
"I think we've got three guys that can play quarterback and can play the position well," Edsall said during his regular Tuesday news conference. "We're just trying to find the guy that will give us the best opportunity and the guy that will go out and execute what he's supposed to do to execute at his position."
Gelbaugh said that after watching the team practice in August, "none of them stood out," though he noted Rowe had "by far the liveliest arm."
Then came Edsall's announcement that Hills would start the season opener.
"I was actually surprised when Perry was named the starter," Gelbaugh said. "I didn't see his body of his work up until that. I know a few years ago when he played he held his own until he got hurt."
Gelbaugh said throwing interceptions can do more than hurt your team's field position.
"You don't get the same number of reps because you keep giving the ball away," Gelbaugh said. "Then your confidence takes a hit when you're a young guy and you throw interceptions. Our guys are throwing it around like it doesn't mean anything to them, but I'm sure it does.
"I'm sure the coaches are emphasizing to them and have been for a number of weeks now that throwing the ball to the other team is unacceptable. At least if you throw an incompletion or take a sack you can punt it."
Gelbaugh, who played under Bobby Ross at Maryland and had future Terps head coach Joe Krivak as his quarterbacks coach, said the current crop of quarterbacks should be performing better given the experience of the offensive coaches.
"You have Keenan McCardell, for crying out loud, sitting in the offensive meetings," Gelbaugh said of the Terps' wide receivers coach who spent 17 seasons in the NFL. "I'm not sitting in the meetings, so for me to say it's the coach or it's this guy or that guy, I can't. Ít's probably a group effort with the volume of turnovers they've had. It's very difficult to say it's one thing. You have guys who don't have a lot of reps playing the position. They're being put in a position where they have to throw the ball under duress, from behind in the game. It's the worst scenario. It's the perfect storm."
After the game against the Buckeyes, the Terps have a bye week before they face Penn State.
"What we have to do is we have to keep working with them and then kind of maybe change how we approach it with them in terms of teaching methodology, so hopefully that it registers a little bit better," Edsall said. "They have to do their part as well and collectively work together to hit that groove and hit that stride for them to be able to go out and play to the level they're capable of playing."
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Daniel Gallen contributed to this article.
With Perry Hills, Caleb Rowe and Daxx Garman at quarterback, Maryland is averaging the fewest yards passing per game, is ranked lowest nationally, and is on pace for by far the most interceptions of any season during coach Randy Edsall's tenure.
Season Quarterbacks YPG/Rank TDs/Ints
2011 Brown 210.3/75 14/16
2012 Hills/Rowe/Burns/Petty 181.7/100 17/12
2013 Brown 248.5/48 18/10
2014 Brown/Rowe/Hills 220.2/72 19/14
2015 Hills/Rowe/Garman 169.4/103 9/15