- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Too often during Maryland’s two-game losing streak, the Terrapins‘ sputtering offense has left itself with few options as a hefty third-and-long situation approaches.

Finding a way to reverse that trend will go far in determining whether the Terps snap out of their swoon anytime soon.

Maryland is a meager 1-for-20 when it needs at least 10 yards to convert a third down, a scenario it increasingly finds itself in as opponents try to stuff the run early in a series to force unproven quarterback Jordan Steffy to beat them through the air.

“Obviously, we have to throw the ball quicker, but when it’s third-and-10 or third-and-12, we’ve gotten into some of those situations because we’ve given up sacks on some earlier downs,” coach Ralph Friedgen said. “It’s tough to win those downs.”

It proved especially difficult in last week’s stunning 31-24 loss at Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons frequently flummoxed the Terps, who were 0-for-8 with three sacks and three scrambles or draws on third-and-long.

That does not bode well for Saturday, when the Terps (2-2) visit No. 10 Rutgers (3-0). The Scarlet Knights are known for generating pressure and rank third nationally in total defense (215.3 yards), albeit against an unimposing schedule to date.

Friedgen pointed out Sunday — and again yesterday — that the Terps have taken 16 sacks this year, already three shy of the total from 13 games a season ago. It provides an understandable reason why Steffy looks skittish at times in the pocket.

“One of the things that’s not helping him is he’s getting hit a lot,” Friedgen said. “We’re probably fortunate he’s as mobile as he is because there would probably be more sacks. What I worry about is he starts losing his poise and not sitting in there because he doesn’t have the confidence in the protection.”

Friedgen said there are plenty of ingredients that lead to third-down headaches, all of which were vetted a week ago in the wake of a home loss to West Virginia. In addition to line play, receivers running precise routes, backs picking up blocks and Steffy ditching the ball before danger arrives all come into play.

The problem isn’t so much struggling on third-and-long, a situation in which few teams find success. Rather, it is the alarming regularity the Terps have stumbled into that scenario in the first month of the season.

Maryland has faced a hole of 10 yards or more on 20 of its 59 third downs this season. The Terps’ overall third-down percentage is a respectable 40.7 percent, and they are a superb 59.0 percent (23-for-39) when they need less than 10 yards.

“Besides [eliminating] those penalties, it’s making plays on first and second down when they’re there,” wideout Danny Oquendo said. “I think it’s more of a momentum thing. The less momentum you have, you’re more likely to go out there and not play as hard or have a penalty called on you.”

Regardless of the rationale, the daunting third downs only have invited trouble for Steffy. The ability of a Florida International to generate an effective blitz has emboldened the same tactics from West Virginia and Wake Forest, and third-and-longs place Steffy in the precarious position of being forced to throw nearly all the time.

The Terps’ only converted third-and-long came on an early 33-yard pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey against West Virginia, but Maryland has yet to prove it can stretch the field when necessary. Steffy ranks ninth in the 12-team ACC in passing yards, and Maryland ranks last as a team in that category.

But Friedgen again voiced support for Steffy yesterday and insisted he would remain patient with his first-year starter.

“I’m not disappointed to the point of where I’m thinking of changing quarterbacks, I can tell you that,” Friedgen said.

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