COLLEGE PARK, Md. — When Maryland offensive coordinator Walt Bell met with the media Wednesday, he clearly wanted to convey that his offense remains a work in progress, despite what looks like a tremendous start to the 2016 season.
The Terps bludgeoned a conference opponent last Saturday, something that hasn’t happened since 2010 and two coaching staffs ago. They have scored more points in the first four games than any team in program history. There are lots of numbers that show how great Maryland has been, especially after a 50-7 win against Purdue helped the Terps improve to 4-0 and surpass their 2015 win total.
Bell has been in this situation before. When he arrived at North Carolina in 2012 with coach Larry Fedora, North Carolina went from scoring 28 points per game to 40.6. When he went to Arkansas State in 2014 with coach Blake Anderson, the Red Wolves went from scoring 29.2 points per game to 36.7
“People see the number on the scoreboard and they automatically assume that I’m doing a great job and we’re doing a great job and that we’re getting better. That’s true and false,” Bell said. “There’s good and bad, and as we’re trying to communicate to our kids offensively, I know a lot of people are excited because of how many points we scored. No. 1, we are not the 1988 [San Francisco] 49ers. We have a long way to go. We are by no means a finished product.”
Bell wants his players to not become consumed by overconfidence, and keeping expectations reasonable with the fan base wouldn’t hurt, either. Still, the Terps are undefeated and the calendar says October. The schedule also says it is time for a trip to Happy Valley, where the team’s toughest test to date awaits.
Maryland has played a soft schedule, though the win at Central Florida could continue to look better as the season progresses. New coach D.J. Durkin and his staff have had time to build depth and let players get more comfortable with the new systems against teams like Howard and Florida International, and Purdue is a candidate to be the worst team in the Big Ten this season.
It is quite the contrast to what has happened a short drive north on I-95 from here, where new Rutgers coach Chris Ash has already played two of the top five teams in the country (Washington and Ohio State) and lost his best player to a season-ending injury.
While Penn State will provide a better opponent to assess the Terps’ progress against, it is undeniable that improvement has happened and is ongoing for the program. There are a couple of key newcomers, namely cornerback J.C. Jackson, a Florida transfer, and true freshman running back Lorenzo Harrison, who has been a revelation in a crowded backfield.
This is not a new roster, or one dramatically altered from 2015. The Terps are playing some freshman, but not truly depending on any of them.
The biggest difference is obviously coaching. Veteran players have improved from previous seasons. Younger players have developed.
The coaching staff sought to establish a high-intensity, high-energy culture during the offseason. It is a lot easier to get kids to follow the lead when the team wins and the results are a reward from the process.
|FEAR THE (IMPROVED) TURTLE||2015||2016|
|Passing yards allowed/game||258.4||206.3|
|Rushing yards allowed/game||162.8||119.0|
|S&P+ Offensive ranking||81||45|
|S&P+ Defensive ranking||48||34|
Some of the improvements are obvious. The Terps are very deep at running back, and are averaging 300 yards per game on the ground. Quarterback Perry Hills has one interception in four games after the team threw 29 a year ago.
There are other more subtle improvements. The offense is better on third downs, and has been much more efficient in the red zone. When Central Florida caused problems, “body punches” as Bell called it, the Terps made adjustments and won in an adverse situation.
“I think our guys responded really well to playing double overtime in the second game,” Durkin said. “There was no panic. There was no finger-pointing. We talk about these types of situations, but you never know how we’re going to react once it happens. Any time you handle adversity together, you become a little more battle-tested.”
The defense has also improved, not only from last season but from last month. The Terps scuffled against the run at times against Florida International and UCF, but they swarmed a good running back, Markell Jones, and held Purdue to 10 rushing yards.
They have been disruptive, and kept opponents off the scoreboard four times in 11 red-zone situations. Penn State players and coaches noted some similarities to what Michigan did on defense when Durkin was there, which came barely more than a week after the Wolverines thumped the Nittany Lions.
Anderson, one of Bell’s mentors, said the 32-year-old coach is excellent at figuring out what the offensive can do, as opposed to what it would like to do. The Terps on a whole have done plenty of that to this point. There will be plenty more to learn Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
“Being 4-0 is great,” Maryland running back Ty Johnson, who leads the team with 333 rushing yards said. “Also, it gives us the opportunity to be 5-0.”