Tense after a harrowing game and aghast after another unproductive encounter with Middle Tennessee, Maryland offensive coordinator James Franklin quickly followed coach Ralph Friedgen into the interview room Saturday night for some postgame scrutiny.
“Might as well come in now and face the fire now, right?” Franklin said as he took his seat.
It wasn’t as bad as what he faced during the game. Nor did it possess even the potential for problems the next nine games carry for the Terrapins (1-2).
The 32-31 loss - Maryland’s second setback in as many years against the Blue Raiders - merely was an extension of the Terps’ first few games. While there was some improvement, nearly every gain was wiped out with four turnovers that contributed to the program’s first home loss to a non-BCS opponent since it fell to Ohio to start the 1997 season.
And it prompts a question nearly every player and coach who spoke with reporters immediately dismissed: Is the Terps’ season teetering on the precipice of calamity after just a quarter of the schedule?
“Depends on who you ask,” quarterback Chris Turner said. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s my senior year. I’m not going to let that happen. I’m not going to let anyone go in the tank. It’s a long, long season. There’s a lot of winnable games left for us. If we went downhill from here, it’s not the team I thought we had.”
Turner invoked some Maryland teams of yore, outfits from 2002 and 2003 that found themselves in similar early-season holes. Yet in 2002, the Terps had early losses to Notre Dame and Florida State. The next year, the setbacks were at Michael Turner-led Northern Illinois and another Florida State team headed for an ACC title.
This month, however, the Terps were demolished 3,000 miles from home before edging James Madison and then stumbling on the final play Saturday night. And it’s enough to make anyone wonder about where Maryland is mentally heading into this week’s suddenly crucial meeting with Rutgers at Byrd Stadium.
“That’s a tough question,” defensive end Deege Galt said. “Yes and no. We believe in each other, and we believe in ourselves. We need to stick together. Obviously we want to win games like this. It didn’t come out exactly as planned. We have to be able to build on it and stay together.”
The simmering frustration - from Friedgen to his players to the fans who booed some of Maryland’s decisions throughout the day - was perhaps best encapsulated by Franklin.
The second-year coordinator and head coach in waiting, Franklin pinpointed a naked bootleg he called for late in the fourth quarter that led to a sack of Turner as a crucial error in handing the Blue Raiders a final chance. Three plays later, the Terps missed a 42-yard field goal, and Middle Tennessee quickly drove downfield to set up its winning field goal.
“If I make a better call in the four-minute offense, the game’s over,” Franklin said. “It’s on my shoulders. It’s not the players. I will never, ever point the finger at the players. The loss is on me.”
In truth, a lot contributed to the night’s misery. Middle Tennessee scored 16 points off turnovers and rolled up 293 yards in the second half against a weary Terps defense.
Such minutiae didn’t matter to Franklin - certainly not with the scoreboard emerging as a harsh final arbiter.
“He was upset, for sure,” Turner said. “He wasn’t happy with some of the play calls he made. But in games like this, you can point the finger a thousand different places. It’s not one play or one person. It’s a team game. It’s a collective loss.”