The Maryland football team’s bludgeoning at West Virginia in the third week of the season did little to suggest the Terrapins could play with a ranked team on the road, contend for an ACC title or even snap a two-year bowl drought.
All those things came to pass in the last two months, with Saturday’s 13-12 victory at then-No. 19 Clemson providing the latest evidence the Terps (7-2, 4-1 ACC) are a capable bunch armed with something else that seemed unlikely after their mauling in Morgantown.
“Right now, we feel invincible,” sophomore wideout Isaiah Williams said. “We’re unstoppable right now.”
Maryland has won the last four weeks, prompting its rise to No. 23 in this week’s Associated Press poll and BCS standings for the program’s first national ranking since October 2004.
The Terps’ path to progress is unusual. Maryland, derided in the first month of the season for failing to blowout inferior opponents, has earned its four conference victories by a combined 12 points.
It is the first time in school history the Terps have won four straight games by six points or less, and Maryland has already matched the 1961 team for the program record for victories by that margin in a season (five).
“I don’t have any magical things that we came up with,” cornerback Josh Wilson said. “We just played football.”
More specifically, the Terps have played smarter football. Gone is a rash of inexplicable, ill-timed errors. Instead, Maryland has forced opponents to play with precision while turning around several problems.
Turnovers: Once a giveaway machine, Maryland has only three turnovers in the last four games. Quarterback Sam Hollenbach has morphed into a quality game manager, limiting mistakes while taking advantage of low-risk, moderate-reward plays.
Meanwhile, the Terps have forced six turnovers during their winning streak, and opponents have gone 1-for-4 on fourth down attempts in that stretch.
Tackling: Maryland’s inability to wrap up and pursue ball carriers was a glaring deficiency in the season’s first month. While the Terps’ run defense is anything but a statistical titan, it was effective enough to limited Clemson’s vaunted tandem of James Davis and C.J. Spiller to 131 yards.
Special teams: Coordinator Ray Rychleski’s unit struggled mightily in the West Virginia game, but it has been a consistent bunch since then. Kicker Dan Ennis has made 11 of his last 12 attempts — including Saturday’s 31-yard game-winner — and punter Adam Podlesh remains steady. Returners Danny Oquendo and Wilson have improved as well.
Throw in a little luck — like the erasure of a Clemson touchdown in the fourth quarter because of an illegal formation penalty — and Maryland concocted a basic recipe for creating at least a chance to win each week.
“We got to the point where we’re tired, tired of people saying we’re the underdog and saying there’s no chance Maryland is going to win,” Williams said. “Every time, week in and week out, we always find a [way to] win. Maybe people got the wrong impression from our game against West Virginia, but that’s early in the season. People lose games early in the season.”
Teams that do so in such a convincing manner don’t always recover. Yet the Terps are tied with Wake Forest for the Atlantic Division lead heading into a meeting with struggling Miami (5-4, 2-3), and a victory would give Maryland the first sweep of the Hurricanes and Florida State in a season since Florida defeated both in 1985.