The Maryland football team is 1-2 at home this season, its only win an opening-week romp against underwhelming James Madison. But with half the Terps' home slate complete for 2014, there's been one uniform positive about games at Byrd Stadium – the crowd. Maryland has already had the highest attendance increase of all power-conference schools this year, and it sounds like that trend will hold up over the weekend against Iowa.
At his Tuesday press conference at Byrd Stadium, Maryland coach Randy Edsall said the team had already sold between 45,000 and 46,000 tickets for Saturday's game, when the Terps will celebrate homecoming and try to bring their home record back to .500. The team's last home game, Oct. 4 against Ohio State, went on before a 51,802-spectator sellout.
"I just think that our kids send a message. You watch the kids play, they go out there and give everything they've got each and every snap out there. You've got to get behind kids that do that," Edsall said. "We've been thrilled with the fans that were here and are continuing to be here. We just need to create that atmosphere because it helps so much with our kids."
Brandon Ross said he looked forward to playing in front of a homecoming crowd.
"We're just focused on the game, but that definitely adds a spark to it," Ross said.
Ross said he got a homecoming ticket for former Maryland fullback Jeff Hernandez, who blocked for Maryland in 2012 when the former was a freshman and the latter a senior.
Status quo on offense
From the outset, the most-criticized positions on the field this year for Maryland have been quarterback and offensive lineman. Both C.J. Brown and his five-man line have had recurring problems, but Edsall is betting on improvement from both parties. On Tuesday, he didn't sound like a coach about to make any changes.
Edsall fielded a question about reserve linemen Evan Mulrooney, who was injured for the first few weeks of the year and has been back at practice for a few weeks now. Asked if Mulrooney might see time at left guard, where new starter Silvano Altamirano has at times struggled, Edsall seemed almost offended at the thought that he might change his current five-man line at all.
"If we felt that [Mulrooney] would give us a better opportunity to win, we'd have him in there," Edsall said. "We have our five best offensive linemen in there playing. That's who we're going to continue to play. Evan's working hard, but right now, he's a backup left guard."
At quarterback, Edsall handed the keys to the offense to backup Caleb Rowe in the second half against Ohio State. On Tuesday, he reaffirmed that Brown is his starter and Rowe his backup.
"Not everybody's going to have a great day. You guys don't have great days all of the time," Edsall told the assembled media in the Tyser Tower press box. "Sometimes the quarterbacks don't, sometimes the offensive linemen don't, and sometimes the running backs don't. You name it."
For his part, Brown acknowledged Rowe's push and accepted it as a reality of competitive college football. He said he and Rowe are "great friends" and there was no "bad blood" between the two signal-callers.
"Any quarterback knows that if you're not going to go out there and produce, they're going to go to the next guy," Brown said. He added, "Obviously you don't want to look over your shoulder. You don't want to know that if you make a mistake, you're going to get pulled. But at the same time, you've just got to go out there and play ball."
That's a classic sports truism, to be sure, but Brown's teammates and coaches have praised Brown for his even keel.
"C.J.'s a pretty level-headed dude. He has a mindset where it's just a next-game mentality. Whatever happened, put it behind him," running back Brandon Ross said. "There was really nothing specific we had to say to C.J."
Brown, for whatever shortcomings he has, is fifth on the university's all-time total yardage list. He has started 22 games across three different seasons for the Terrapins. He's been a part of the program for six years and is down to the last half of his last season. Maryland is still 4-2, and Brown is facing down the biggest six-game stretch of his life. That starts on Saturday at noon. To that end, Brown recalled a recent exchange with offensive coordinator Mike Locksley.
"There's nothing to hold back now," Brown said. "We were talking with Coach Locks, and he's just like, 'You've only got six guaranteed games left in your career here. Leave it all out there. You have nothing to hold, nothing to hide, don't hold back. So just go out there and let it rip, and go out there and win.'"
Linebacker Logan returns from suspension
Maryland has played all season without the help of linebacker Abner Logan, whom the university suspended from game action last spring. Logan, a former four-star recruit, was reinstated over the bye week and will be eligible to play in the game against the Hawkeyes.
Logan's presence figures to be a lift for a linebacking group riddled with injuries for much of the year. Edsall did not say what role he would be used in or how much time he would see on Saturday.
"Abner is a really hard worker," Edsall said. "He is a guy who likes to play the game, plays it with energy. He's done a lot of good things for us on special teams. It gives us another guy who has experience and who's played to be out there and have the opportunity to go out there and have some reps. It can allow us the opportunity to do some other things with him being back."
What those things will be will become clear soon enough.
Woods is "next man up" in defensive backfield
The Terps' secondary has had a hard time staying healthy this year. Starting cornerback Alvin Hill was lost for the season after the game against Syracuse on Sept. 20. Backup safety and dime cornerback Zach Dancel has been banged up. Now, the Terps will play without backup cornerback Daniel Ezeagwu for the remainder of the season.
Ezeagwu, a freshman, will undergo surgery to repair a meniscus injury. Another freshman, Josh Woods, will replace Ezeagwu behind Will Likely on Maryland's two-deep depth chart.
"Our confidence level in Josh Woods is very high. He's the next guy up," Edsall said. "That's just how it is."
Ngakoue's growth bodes well for defense's future
With Logan gone for the season's first half and a constant whirl of linebacker injuries, sophomore Yannick Ngakoue has grown into an important role for the Maryland defense.
When everybody's healthy, Ngakoue theoretically isn't even a starter for Brian Stewart's unit, playing behind Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil and Matt Robinson on the edge and Cole Farrand and L.A. Goree inside. Those players, of course, are all seniors. Lately, with Robinson injured, Ngakoue has played a lot of snaps as an outside backer opposite Cudjoe-Virgil.
Ngakoue was a prized recruit for Edsall, rated four stars by Rivals and as the best player in Washington in 2012. He's living up to his billing, leading the Big Ten in per-game tackles for loss, with 8.5 in total. Ngakoue has been tremendous against the run, using quick lateral movement to get away from blockers and hunt down runners. He's also gotten to quarterbacks for three sacks, surpassing the two he had over his entire freshman season.
"I'm not satisfied," he said.
Ngakoue said his growth this year would help him as a leader next year, by which time Farrand, Goree, Cudjoe-Virgil and Robinson will be gone.
"Just a lot of experience I've gained from playing a lot of games, I feel like I can carry it on and just help out younger guys like Jesse [Aniebonam] and more people coming in," Ngakoue said. "I know they're in the same shoes I was in last year."