- The Washington Times - Friday, September 22, 2006

Maryland special teams coordinator Ray Rychleski joked that he couldn’t wait to tell his players about the unusual level of attention he received this week when three reporters approached him.

It certainly didn’t catch him off guard after his usually stout unit turned in a bad game in last week’s loss to West Virginia. And he couldn’t help but laugh when someone mentioned it was a stunningly out-of-character performance.

“I hope so,” Rychleski said.

So do the Terrapins (2-1), who absorbed a 45-24 body blow from the Mountaineers nine days ago. They have waited since for the opportunity to move past a forgettable evening, and it arrives tonight when the Terps meet Florida International (0-3) at Byrd Stadium.

While the entire Maryland program could use a boost after the drubbing, it would be especially helpful to the special teams. The group has contributed mightily to Maryland’s success in the five-plus seasons since coach Ralph Friedgen (and Rychleski) arrived, particularly through Nick Novak’s game-winning field goals, Adam Podlesh’s pinpoint punts and Steve Suter’s electrifying returns.

None of that mattered when the Terps fumbled two kickoff returns last week, including one that set up West Virginia’s second touchdown before Maryland’s offense trotted onto the field. There was also a kickoff on which a West Virginia player muffed the ball, then picked it up and ran 96 yards for a touchdown just before halftime.

“Unfortunately, it was the wrong night in front of a national TV audience to do that,” Rychleski said. “Just like everybody else, I have aspirations, I have goals. You think I wanted to look like that in front of all my buddies and my neighbors? When they saw me those two days after the game they said, ‘Hey, Coach, what’s up with the special teams?’ It was pretty easy to see.”

The kickoff return for a touchdown especially gnawed at Rychleski, who spent the weekend viewing other games — specifically, other programs’ special teams blunders. Clemson struggled to kick extra points. Oklahoma was burned by a bad call on an onside kick. Notre Dame fumbled a kickoff.

“I thought I was watching Maryland,” Rychleski said. “I felt the replay there.”

Still, what little solace could be taken from knowing forgettable games can happen to anyone did not stop the Terps from tinkering with their kickoff team.

Maryland tried both Podlesh and Chris Roberts, last year’s kickoff specialist, this week as a possible replacement for kickoff man Obi Egekeze. Friedgen remained silent Thursday on who would kick off tonight.

There are also adjustments on the kickoff coverage team. Senior safety Marcus Wimbush, who was hampered earlier in the month with a knee injury, is back on special teams after playing there in the season opener. Freshman fullback Cory Jackson also practiced with the unit, adding another powerful hitter to a group that perhaps let up on the touchdown return.

“Hopefully, we learned from that mistake,” Friedgen said. “A guy fumbles the ball, you’d better get down there as fast as you can and try to get it.”

There could be other changes. Senior Josh Wilson, who botched an exchange with Darrius Heyward-Bey on one kickoff and fumbled another after bringing it out from 5 yards deep in the end zone, wore a walking boot throughout the week on his right foot — the same one he sprained during camp last month.

If Wilson doesn’t play, Heyward-Bey likely would take over as the primary return man. Heyward-Bey was on the receiving end of Wilson’s ill-fated handoff last week and admitted he wondered what was happening when the traditionally sound unit made so many mistakes.

“Those are decisions we live with. If they turn out well, people are like, ‘What a great play,’ and if they don’t everybody’s going to be like, ‘What were you thinking?’ ” Heyward-Bey said. “There was a lot of, ‘What were you thinking’ out there.”

Not that anyone expects a carryover effect tonight. Maryland needs a victory to reach the halfway point toward bowl eligibility, and a loss to the pesky Golden Panthers would leave the Terps on a two-game skid heading into an off week followed by eight straight weeks of ACC play. The latter is a scenario Maryland would rather not consider, and a strong performance from a retooled special teams group would help make a loss far less likely.

“That was just one of those days,” Heyward-Bey said. “I’m not worried about anything. Coach Ray’s not worried about anything. We’re just going back to what we usually do. We’re going to punt the ball, we’re going to kick the ball, we’re going to catch the ball and we’re going to run it down everybody’s throats.”

TERPS KEYS

1. Beware of Barnes — Florida International’s Antwan Barnes — a quick former linebacker who lines up at defensive end — has four sacks in the Panthers’ first three games. Keeping him away from quarterback Sam Hollenbach is the offensive line’s top priority.

2. Rein in the run — Make no mistake: Anyone with a remotely decent tailback is going to try to run against Maryland after the Terps yielded 340 yards rushing to West Virginia. If improvement is needed anywhere, it is in stopping the run.

3. No kickoff clumsiness — Special teams is usually one of Maryland’s strengths, but it sure wasn’t last week. The Terps’ return men committed two first-half turnovers, and West Virginia ran back a muffed kickoff for a score. Similar errors would produce far too great an adventure tonight.

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