Preseason camp was deep into its latter stages last month when Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen asked the Terrapins‘ major contributors to stand up before their teammates and admit two things.
The first, each individual’s greatest strength, wasn’t too hard. Confessing an area in need of improvement, though, was far more revealing.
“The consistent weakness was we’re not consistent,” quarterback Chris Turner said. “By the last guy, we all had the same answer. Since we’re not being more consistent after we all admitted we’re being inconsistent, it’s probably something we should get better at.”
Still. Consistency was Friedgen’s drumbeat throughout last season, when a rash of injuries interfered with Maryland’s chances of achieving stability. In the four weeks leading into this season, odds were good Friedgen would do two things during media sessions: chug down an ice-cold sports drink and bemoan the Terps’ schizophrenic nature.
That was a veritable era of good feelings compared with the last few days. The Terps (1-1) were their erratic selves in a 24-14 loss at Middle Tennessee last week, and they now encounter a much more redoubtable opponent with No. 23 California (2-0) arriving at Byrd Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The energy drink remains, though probably clutched a little tighter this week. The pleas for consistency, meanwhile, have escalated into demands.
“You think if I knew the answer, I wouldn’t try to get it done?” Friedgen said. “Obviously, it’s trying to get better - better focus, conscious of doing your job to perfection.”
His message isn’t much different now, even if it’s delivered with an edge expected in the aftermath of what was probably Maryland’s most numbing loss since Friedgen arrived.
He decried inconsistency last year when the Terps gave away a 21-point lead at Wake Forest and lost in overtime. They proceeded to win at Rutgers before quality of play gradually eroded.
Friedgen was flustered with his team’s unpredictability later that fall after an ugly defeat at North Carolina. The Terps mustered their best performance of the year the next week against Boston College, then reverted to form against Florida State before throttling N.C. State to finish the season.
Maybe that means a bounce-back game is in order against California. But even an upset Saturday would not necessarily indicate a longer-term accomplishment: the actual delivery and acceptance of Friedgen’s message.
“I think after the Middle Tennessee State game, it finally seeped in,” strong safety Jeff Allen said. “And everybody knows that everybody has to be consistent and I think everybody will.”
No one would be more pleased with that development than Friedgen, whose vexation with the situation might have hit its apogee this week.
He, like his players, senses how drastically the perception of his team shifted in the last two weeks. And while the diminished expectations don’t square with the possibilities he sees, it’s difficult to blame anyone for wondering whether the Terps’ ceiling is limited when they can swing wildly from day to day.
“When you’re continually on the guys about doing it right and you try to show them this is what happens when you do it right, pretty soon they’ve got to get it,” Friedgen said. “It’s got to start coming from them.”
Clearly, Friedgen found a more rapt audience this week after an unfathomable loss featuring meltdowns of nearly every kind imaginable. And his admitted frustration stems not just from a single abysmal game, but the constant need to revisit a basic concept.
After all, that was the point of his late-camp ploy. And while perfection - what right tackle Dane Randolph described as the highest form of consistency - might not be possible, an increase in stability and a severe cutback in mistakes could give the Terps a different look.
“That was his way of getting us to say ourselves that we need to work on consistency,” Randolph said. “It was really apparent. Since then, he’s said ‘You told me yourselves.’”
No doubt Friedgen said it plenty this week leading into a game that could prove a lot about the Terps, regardless of the outcome.
“I think it’s time we start showing people who we are,” Friedgen said. “… Just looking at what we’ve done in two games, I think we have to go out and show people we’re a pretty good football team.”
At least they can be - depending on the day.