It may seem hard to remember, but Maryland started this football season 4-0 and ranked. With the Florida State loss as a given in any circumstance, the Terps moved to 5-1, with a bowl berth nearly a guarantee and things looking bright for the future of the season and the program. Then, everything fell apart. So what happened?
We hear about it every year, but it's incredibly significant. Maryland lost their two best offensive playmakers (Stefon Diggs and Deon Long) and three of their four best defensive playmakers (Dexter McDougle, Jeremiah Johnson and Yannick Cudjoe-Virgil) -- all seemingly for the season (Johnson may return for the last few games, but it doesn't look good).
Maryland's defense has managed to play very well without McDougle, Johnson and Cudjoe-Virgil, ranking higher than the team's offense in most advanced statistical categories, but there have been times when the the Terps' ability to defend the pass has looked considerably hampered -- and they've coincided with Maryland losses in conference play.
2. Offensive playcalling
This kind of goes hand-in-hand with the first one, and the problems here were never seen more clearly than in the game against Syracuse. Mike Locksley and Randy Edsall have shown a stubborn desire to not change their offensive gameplan whatsoever without Diggs and Long out there. That results in an offense designed to rely on big plays...without playmakers.
We saw this repeatedly against the Orange, as Maryland refused to rely on the ground game and instead tried to give the ball to wide receivers like Amba Etta-Tawo in space. Etta-Tawo, who has great speed but still has quite a bit of work to do in his receiving game, dropped a lot of those balls and fumbled one. With three games left, the hope is that Maryland can shift their focus back to the zone-read and adjust the passing game to one that focuses on short throws -- against a zone-blitzing scheme like Syracuse showed, dump-off passes to the halfback or short plays to the tight end would work perfectly, and we simply did not see any of those.
It's easy to say that Maryland simply "fell back to Earth" after playing some pretty weak opponents to start out the year, and while there is some truth to that, there is no denying that Maryland looked good in the first two weeks (and not so good in their next two wins). Blowing out bad competition can be as impressive as beating good competition (ask Florida State), and Maryland certainly was impressive against Florida International and Old Dominion (and without a doubt more impressive than their attempts against cupcakes in recent years).
On the other hand, Maryland has one very real issue that has plagued them throughout this streak -- offensive line play. The one thing in common with every team not named FIU or Old Dominion? An improved defensive line. The Terps have struggled to keep pressure out of the backfield in every game since then, and things have only gotten worse with true freshman Moise Larosa at left tackle.
Watching Maryland play these last few weeks has been a less-than-joyous experience, and I think it's understandable for some to think the season is over. The Terps will be underdogs in each of their last three games, and they will now have to fight to make a bowl game (and possibly save their head coach's job).
The good news is all three opponents left on the schedule are teams that have shown an ability to shoot themselves in the foot on par (or nearly on par) with Maryland's ability to do so. If the Terps are able to make the proper adjustments to their offensive game-calling and run plays that take less time, they could get the offense going again. The defense has been fine -- to the point that Brian Stewart will likely be in the running for a number of head-coaching jobs this offseason -- and if the offense catches up, the Terps can steal one.