ATLANTA Maryland defensive line coach Dave Sollazzo was running drills two days before the Peach Bowl when he looked at Justin Duffie and said, “I didn’t even know your first name until last night.”
The freshman walk-on spent the entire regular season on the scout team running opponents’ plays in practice before being thrust into duty as an emergency starter at nose tackle in Tuesday night’s Peach Bowl.
Duffie became the latest unlikely hero for the 20th-ranked Terrapins as they pummeled Tennessee 30-3 in the Georgia Dome. He came to Maryland to play lacrosse before switching to football last spring as a fullback and then being converted to defense during the season. The only game experience Duffie had was in a mop-up role late in a 59-7 rout of North Carolina.
“Last year at this time he was playing lacrosse,” said Sollazzo, who gave Duffie a crash course after starter William Shime was suspended from the team and sent home Sunday for an undisclosed violation of team rules. “He started out as a fullback, and we basically fit six months [of defensive line training] into 48 hours. Somehow, he pulled it off.”
Duffie began working out with the “varsity” defensive line during bowl practices and was supposed merely to provide insurance as a third-stringer. However, the crisis gave him an opportunity, and the 6-foot-2, 290-pounder got the call ahead of backup Tosin Abari.
“It was pretty hard to believe from where I started the season to where I finished it up,” said Duffie, who gained 60 pounds after deciding to pursue football last spring. “[Game day] was nerve-racking. I studied plays like I had the past two days. To wait for a 7:30 game for the first time you ever played is like torture just to wait and wait.”
The Gaithersburg resident and Landon School graduate got plenty of in-game instruction, with linebacker E.J. Henderson and defensive end Durrand Roundtree making sure he was lined up in the right position. Duffie battled fatigue as he adjusted to game speed and played extended stretches after defensive tackle Randy Starks suffered a pulled groin and was lost for the night on the defense’s second play.
“I don’t think I ever got real comfortable,” Duffie said. “I just didn’t want to let anybody down. I would say to Coach Sollazzo, ‘I don’t know where I’m supposed to be.’ He would say, ‘Just attack. Attack the man in front of you.’”
‘Emotional and inspirational’
Sollazzo left the team’s Atlanta hotel yesterday morning feeling a bit better about his mother, who suffered a heart attack Tuesday. The coach said her condition had improved overnight as he prepared to travel to be with her in New York.
The coach’s family had hoped to keep the news from Sollazzo until after Tuesday’s game, but a friend called and frantically asked if he was OK.
“I didn’t know what he was talking about,” Sollazzo said of the call several hours before the game. He described the day as “emotional and inspirational” after the big win.
Sollazzo had one of his most satisfying days as a coach as three seldom-used linemen Landon Jones, Abari and Duffie were instrumental in limiting Tennessee to 45 yards rushing on 27 carries.
“We knew we had to go out there and play for Coach Sollazzo,” Duffie said.
Who knew? Scott knew
When Scott McBrien ran a naked bootleg on fourth-and-1 for a touchdown on Maryland’s first possession, the Volunteers weren’t the only ones surprised to see the quarterback go around the left corner into the end zone.
“Nobody knew I was keeping the ball,” McBrien said of the score that put the Terps ahead for good at 7-0. “Coach [James] Franklin signaled it in for me to keep the ball. I just called the play as ‘44 Gut’. I kept the ball. Bruce [Perry] was going through the hole saying, ‘Where’s the ball?’ I kept it and it was wide open.”
McBrien finished with 36 yards rushing on seven carries, including a 6-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Friedgen on fans
Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen conceded he was a little disappointed that more Terps fans did not travel to Atlanta. The university sold just over 15,000 of the 20,000 tickets it bought and wound up giving away 3,500 to Atlanta military and non-profit groups. The dome was filled on three sides by Tennessee fans, while Maryland fans filled most of three decks behind an end zone.
Friedgen feels fans may be feeling the financial strains of going to the last two Final Fours, last season’s Orange Bowl and the Kickoff Classic in August. Securing seats at Comcast Center also has tapped into funds.
“Maybe next year we will bring more people,” Friedgen said. “Maybe they were losing confidence in us [as far as winning the bowl]. They had a lot of things they had to do. The economy is not the best right now. I think they were stressed. I think they will be there for us in the future.”