- The Washington Times - Friday, October 20, 2006

As the NFL Draft approached last April, Maryland’s offensive linemen received constant reminders on television of how their season had ended five months earlier.

Analyst after analyst blathered about N.C. State defensive end Mario Williams, who ultimately became the top overall selection. And to demonstrate his athleticism, a highlight package featuring Williams’ four sacks against the injury-riddled Terrapins was shown.

“It was awful,” junior guard Donnie Woods recalled ruefully this week. “The guy was the No.1 draft pick, so they showed his highlights all day, every day. It was tough [for us] as a unit. We’d be sitting in the locker room during spring ball, and his highlights would come on and it would be just us. I swear he made all of his sacks against us last year.”

Williams is now a Houston Texan, but the lesson of his last game against the Terps remains clear. The play of both lines — the offensive unit’s ability to hold up and a defensive group’s success in aggravating a quarterback — can determine whether a team plays in a bowl game or spends the holidays at home, as Maryland did last year after yielding seven sacks to N.C. State. And when the Terps (4-2, 1-1 ACC) meet the Wolfpack (3-3, 2-1) at Byrd Stadium today, line production probably will be vital again.

Maryland’s line was expected to be one of the Terps’ most reliable units when camp started, but it struggled at times early in the season to protect quarterback Sam Hollenbach. Four projected starters missed time with injuries or suspensions in camp, and Maryland started three line combinations in its first four games.

Yet there appeared to be progress in last week’s 28-26 victory at Virginia. Hollenbach was sacked just twice after absorbing eight sacks in his previous two games, and the rushing game thrived in the second half.

“Even though we’ve had some injuries and we’ve moved some guys around, just the overall experience of the offensive line has allowed us to stay relatively consistent as we go along,” guard Andrew Crummey said. “I think we get better as every game and practice goes along. Communication and trusting each other, those things matter, and they manifested themselves against Virginia.”

The Terps could use a similar performance from a defensive line that has struggled to contain quarterbacks all season. Only four of the Terps’ ACC-low eight sacks have come from linemen, and Maryland has managed only three sacks in its last four games.

Defensive coordinator Chris Cosh said that in a typical four-man blitz, a team tries to keep two pass rushers on each side of the quarterback. The Terps frequently have become unbalanced in their first six games, with an extra lineman floating to one side and creating a gap for a quarterback to escape through if secondary coverage holds up.

“One of the things we don’t do very well is, we don’t stay in our rush lanes, and that’s why the guy scrambles,” coach Ralph Friedgen said. “We get knocked all around and get into ad-libbing, and if we just pressed the pocket and keep it contained, we’d get some sacks. Everybody gets out of their lanes and opens up these big seams.”

With such struggles, it is little surprise Maryland has had trouble with mobile quarterbacks like West Virginia’s Pat White, Georgia Tech’s Reggie Ball and Virginia’s Jameel Sewell. N.C. State quarterback Daniel Evans, who will faces the Terps today, is a more traditional pocket passer.

Friedgen is hopeful linebacker Rick Costa, who has lined up at defensive end in some packages recently, can badger passers in the second half of the season. Creating any kind of pressure will be vital, particularly against quarterbacks who can invariably find holes in any coverage if given time.

“That’s a concern of ours,” Friedgen said. “We’re hoping it improves, and it needs to. This is the fewest sacks we’ve ever had, and we’re still blitzing quite a bit.”

Despite those struggles, Maryland is just two victories shy of becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2003. Friedgen isn’t sure if six wins will lock up a postseason berth, but he’s optimistic that last week’s rally from a 20-point deficit at Virginia will provide the Terps with a much needed boost for the final half-dozen games.

However, the euphoria of the victory at Virginia faded once practice resumed this week. The Terps’ minds quickly settled on N.C. State — the team that foiled Maryland’s once-hopeful 2005, as they were reminded so often last spring.

“We’re 4-2 and we’ve been here before — last year,” Hollenbach said. “And look how last year ended up.”

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