Danny O’Brien is one of those quarterbacks you hope you don’t have to throw in as a redshirt freshman, if at all. Lightly recruited, with offers coming from ACC cellar-dweller Duke and scrappy Conference USA squad East Carolina, O’Brien did not enter Maryland with the kind of hype that typically precedes a quarterback who takes the reins from an incumbent starter in his second season with the program. In fact, prior to the season, the quarterback depth chart was highlighted by one question mark in Jamarr Robinson and followed by a smoking crater of inexperienced quarterbacks with no recruiting pedigree to say they were going to turn into stars. Slowly but surely however, O’Brien is starting to turn this into a winning season. With four tough matchups to end the season, it has yet to be seen whether this Maryland squad can defeat a quality opponent and secure a winning season in the wake of a 2-10 disastrous 2009 campaign.
Looking statistically at the Terrapins, their win-loss record looks questionable at best. This team has managed to beat teams that outgained them by over 200 yards, has only barely outgained their opponents (323-320 ypg), and is no better than “okay” in any particular statistical category offensively.
The difference has been red-zone defense, which has been outstanding throughout the year, even aside from the now-famous silencing of the Navy rushing attack on 4 different drives that ended inside the 10 yard line. They have only allowed scores of any kind on 68% of red zone drives, good for 8th best nationally and are only allowing 55% touchdowns. That kind of defense is why this team is 6-2 instead of 4-4. Unlike some of the teams ahead of it in red zone defense, like Boise State, Missouri, and Oregon, Maryland does not have the luxury of its opponents being so far behind that they have to go for it rather than kick the easy field goal, which makes Maryland’s achievement all the more impressive.
With Jamarr Robinson to open the season, the offense stalled even in the win against Navy. He looked the part of the quarterback who was forced onto a sinking ship last season and not one prepared to make a Denard Robinson-like leap from year one to year two. I won’t put the blame on Robinson, however. It has been clear from day one that the offensive coaching staff has no idea how to utilize a mobile quarterback and has done a terrible job trying to develop his skills. There is also no reason that the two-headed attack of Scott and Meggett should combine for the 80th best rushing attack in the nation against sub-par competition. Offensive coordinator and God-I-Hope-They-Don’t-Do-This Head Coach in Waiting James Franklin seems to have no idea whether he is running an option offense, a pro-style attack, a zone read, or what from week to week. I understand giving the defense different looks to prepare for, but a coach should make sure his team is good at one thing before adding everything else.
Luckily with Danny O’Brien, Franklin’s hand has been forced. With Robinson taking the heat for inept play calling, O’Brien took the helm. O’Brien won’t outrun anyone, he can stand tall in the pocket and throw down the field, forcing Franklin to limit the combo platter of offenses he chose to run. With O’Brien under center Maryland has finally started to take advantage of its stable of wide receivers who have long languished behind terrible offensive lines and quarterbacks who are mediocre at best- remember when we missed Sam Hollenbach?
So far the redshirt freshman’s stats are eye-popping- a 13-3 TD-INT ratio, making good decisions and not forcing the ball downfield despite his strong arm. In fact, his yards per attempt are identical to Robinson’s, showing a willingness to take the dump-off when it’s there. That is the sort of mental acumen that is almost universally missing from young quarterbacks.
But the biggest tests are yet to come. Miami could actually be a good match-up for a Maryland pass efficiency defense that ranks 8th in the country, as the Hurricanes are burning through their backups already after losing Jacory Harris last week in a loss to Virginia. Harris was already turnover-prone, so this is a game Maryland could win if their offense can move the football against a strong but inconsistent Miami front seven. After Miami it’s a rivalry game with UVA, followed up by ranked opponents Florida State and NC State to end the season. For Maryland fans this season has already surpassed expectations- behind Danny O’Brien, the Terps could be poised for much higher expectations next season.