- The Washington Times - Monday, September 8, 2008

Maryland offensive coordinator James Franklin and several other assistants walked stonefaced into the press box elevator Saturday at Floyd Stadium just after the final moments of the Terrapins‘ 24-14 loss at Middle Tennessee trickled away.

Their dazed expressions were a perfect complement to the players they were about to join in a morose locker room.

For all of the talk of Maryland improving on its 6-7 record from last year, for all of the optimism created when Franklin was imported from Kansas State in December and for all of the boasts of a roster with 30 seniors, the Terps (1-1) look like they regressed in the offseason.

The usual platitudes - some empty, others truthful - of working hard, listening to coaches and practicing better were offered as Maryland quietly slipped back home in the middle of the night.

None of it could reverse a troubling loss the Terps never fathomed could happen.

“I knew we were in trouble, but it never really occurred to me we could lose the game until maybe late in the fourth quarter,” senior linebacker Trey Covington said. “That’s when it really started to be ‘We could lose this game.’ It’s real tough.”

And it could become worse. California (2-0), freshly minted with a No. 23 national ranking and coming off pounding Washington State 66-3, arrives Saturday at Byrd Stadium for what could be one of the most telling games of coach Ralph Friedgen’s tenure.

Friedgen bemoaned how he failed in his attempts to get the Terps to prepare studiously last week. Middle Tennessee was not the most redoubtable opponent, and its 67 available scholarship players and preseason spot in the Sun Belt’s second division probably did not help.

Now the Terps must improve at nearly everything - there was little encouraging to take from the Mortification in Murfreesboro - if they have any chance of competing with a foe vastly superior to Middle Tennessee.

Maryland has scored 28 points in the first two weeks. California has produced at least 17 points in each of its first four halves. So it’s obvious the Terps require an especially productive week to take care of their errors.

“I think we have to get them fixed quickly,” Friedgen said. “Our players will see this tape and realize what they have to be better at. Coaching-wise, we’ll do the same. Then it’s a matter of hanging in and doing like we did in the past.”

Some things could change. Friedgen hinted at possible tweaks on special teams and possibly elsewhere, though he wouldn’t disclose what those might be. One place he could be required to shuffle personnel is at free safety, where Terrell Skinner (high ankle sprain) is doubtful for Saturday.

A possible adjustment could come at quarterback. Junior Josh Portis took 11 snaps in the first two games and ran on 10 of them, lending predictability to his role. That extreme tendency could be broken this week, Friedgen said, with the possibility of more throws and even handoffs.

But more ails the Terps than just quarterback, where Chris Turner was 13-for-28 for 207 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions in his first start of the season. Covington admitted it was unlikely the team as a whole could fare much worse, and even the most optimistic players could see Saturday was a correction of sorts.

“We haven’t started ACC games yet, so that’s still up on my board, to win the ACC championship,” wideout Darrius Heyward-Bey said. “… This is a reality check, and we have to get going so we can contend for the championship.”

For now, title talk is frivolous. If ever there was a time for a narrower scope, this is probably it.

“It’s just kind of how they approach it,” Friedgen said. “I think it’s very important I stay positive with them. I still think this team has a lot of great talent on it, and they’re great kids. One night doesn’t make a season.”

For the Terps, it was still enough for a nightmare.

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