EAST HARTFORD CT - NOVEMBER 27: Head coach Randy Edsall of the Connecticut Huskies directs his players in the fourth quarter against the Cincinnati Bearcats on November 27 2010 at Rentschler Field in East Hartford Connecticut. The Huskies defeated the Bearcats 38-17. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
I can't help but feel Maryland's game against the Connecticut Huskies came at a really, really bad time for Randy Edsall.
Or maybe for us, the fans. Because should Maryland lose, even if they play well, it's not going to matter to a lot of people, news media included. The narrative won't be that a team many expected to go 2-10 sits at 2-1 to start the season; the narrative will be that Edsall's old school came to Byrd Stadium and beat Edsall, some kind of proof that he hasn't improved the Terrapins and has in fact dragged them down. Against any other team - like Rutgers, say, or Arizona or even West Virginia - a loss would have an air of "Well, it had to happen at some point. But 2-1 ain't bad." Instead, drop one to UConn, and that becomes the only thing that'll really matter. The folks at the Post and Courant will have a field day with the contrast. And plenty of fans will eat it up, too.
Whether or not they're right to, I'm not sure. Because, while it might be clear that Edsall's pulled Maryland back in the short-term, the long-term future of the program is still undecided. It doesn't look all that optimistic, recruiting aside. But whether Maryland beats UConn in a season when neither are likely to play in the postseason is hardly going to be the determining factor in Edsall's stay in College Park. Oh sure, every loss counts. But UConn is, rationally, no more special than any other team. And Edsall's tenure will not be made-or-broken based on this game. But, should he lose, that won't stop some poor sap with his own column from claiming that it was.
But enough about that. It's all circus and sideshow, and there's actually an interesting football game on the docket here. This is actually the first time this year I'm going into a game with a genuine feeling of uncertainty about the result. Against W&M, I was confident of Maryland winning (and they did, by the skin of their teeth). Heading into Temple, I felt fairly strong about the Terrapins losing (and they didn't, again by the skin of their teeth). This one doesn't have that luxury; it's a genuine toss-up.
Oh, and speaking of the Temple game quickly: that was a classic strength vs. strength match-up. This one? The exact opposite. Maryland's not-quite-anemic-but-still-not-very-good offense will go up against a smothering UConn defense - #3 in the country in both total and scoring defense so far - while their fearsome front seven will run into a run-first offense that, strangely, can't run, and their worrisome secondary will get a break by facing the nation's most interception-prone quarterback - a quarterback with a QBR 15 points lower than Perry Hills.
Yeah, it's a weird situation.
We'll start with the bad news, which is that former Maryland defensive coordinator Don Brown has gone up to Storrs and done his thing. Just like in College Park, the first year was a mixed bag: they were a top-50 team in scoring defense and one of the best in the country defending the run, but a terrible secondary left them as one of the easiest teams to beat through the air, spoiling the party somewhat.
But, again just like in College Park, he turned it around in Year 2. Nine starters returned for the Huskies, and with a year getting Brown's system down, they've transformed themselves from a good-but-flawed unit into one of the stingiest in the country. N.C. State and UMass are hardly the most imposing of opposition, but that doesn't make their display of early-season dominance any less impressive: they've allowed only 10 points through their first two games, and 7 of those came on a short field when the offense turned the ball over on their own side of the 50. They've had 29 drives against them, and exactly one was sustained for 50 yards or more. Against two FBS teams, even of questionably quality, that's astonishingly good. (LSU gave up twice as many against North Texas, fro comparison's sake.)
And it's not just that they're stopping teams from scoring; they're looking really, really good while doing it. They lay claim to the best rushing defense in the country, averaging less than a yard per attempt so far. But unlike last year, they're holding their own against the pass, too, with a top-10 showing there to boot. There aren't the obvious holes that existed last season. Strangely, they aren't forcing turnovers - only one so far - but they have pressured the QB with eight sacks already, and they've been so good that the lack of turnovers hasn't hurt them.
For a Maryland team that's clearly still yet to master their offense and execute it consistently, this is a scary proposition. UConn's numbers will normalize as they start to face tougher competition ... but is Maryland really tougher competition than N.C. State? We all knew Mike Glennon was terrible, but scouts were talking him up as an early-round NFL draft pick before the season. And a running game with Mustafa Greene and James Washington is a lot better than barely over a yard per carry. Are we really expecting a Maryland offense that's had basically two-and-a-half, maybe three good quarters worth of football to do better?
Perhaps I'm eeyoring here too much. I don't think UConn is the new Alabama or anything, but I do think they're more than a match for a Maryland offense that's still finding its feet. If the Terrapins get three TDs out of this game, Mike Locksley has a lot more going on than we've given him credit for.
The good news, though, is that UConn's offense is horrendously bad. Like, worse than Maryland bad. You might look at their 37 points against UMass and think there's something there, but you'd be wrong: 14 of those points came directly from defense and special teams; another 10 came on short fields. Even against a front seven that was basically FCS quality, they were only able to manage 3.4 yards per carry and threw two interceptions. Then against N.C. State things got even worse, with a measly 1.1 ypc and another three picks. Think of Maryland's opener against William and Mary, and then instead of improving significantly against Temple, imagine them getting worse by that same margin. Ouch, right? Well, that's basically what UConn did.
And even better: this is a team that relies heavily on the ground game. That's been UConn's M.O. ever since Dan Orlovsky left, and it's still true. They're not as good at it as they were under Edsall, but they've still gone with significantly more runs than passes so far and they seem determined to keep pressing it. That's despite coming in at #113 in the country in rushing yards per carry. And given that Maryland's front seven shut down a much more imposing Temple attack, I'm praying they'll try banging their head against that wall a bit.
And they just might do it, too, depending on just how afraid they are to air it out. They're sporting a new QB in Chandler Whitmer, a JuCo transfer who's seeing his first big-time CFB action and beat out trick shot extraordinaire Johnny McEntee. And while he's done well enough - 30-52 for 423 yards ain't shabby - mistakes are killing him, with a worst-in-the-country five interceptions. For an offense that doesn't trust the pass to begin with, the odds seem long that they'll let loose an error-prone QB in his first ever FCS road game. But they will look to test Maryland's spotty secondary at least somewhat. And that's why yesterday's news that Matt Robinson is healthy again is so big. Along with Isaac Goins and hopefully A.J. Hendy, they'll transform a scary unit into at the very least a mediocre one. And I don't see Whitmer ripping apart even a mediocre secondary.
So you have a game of two very strange extremes, and the end result is likely to be not very many points and a bunch of hurt eyeballs. But judging by the first two games, this is the type of game Maryland's built for. Tough, gritty, mistake-free football. It's not going to win any beauty pageants, but in a game that should be as grind-it-out as you're likely to see this season, Maryland's penchant for grinding-out wins should come in handy.
For Randy Edsall's sake, let's hope they do. And unless you're looking forward to a ton of "Oh God Edsall lost to UConn" knee-jerk reactions*, let's hope so for our sake, too.
*Depending on the nature of the game, I reserve the right to make this same knee-jerk reaction. Yeah, I know.