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Prepared to make their points

Ralph Friedgen's offense is a hit at Maryland, where he has turned around his alma mater.

By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 31, 2001

They built an upper deck on Byrd Stadium seven years ago, a gleaming $45-million hulk of a structure that didn't get much use outside of lacrosse season.

It's main function during Maryland football seasons -- for which it was built -- seemingly was to underscore just how far the program had fallen. Its emptiness showed just how apathetic Terrapins fans had become in an endless hurt-hope-hurt cycle since coach Bobby Ross left in 1986, and took the good times with him.

Ralph Friedgen, 54, who followed Ross to Georgia Tech and later to the San Diego Chargers as an assistant, brought them back this fall, in part because of the encyclopedic playbook he brought with him from 21 seasons as an offensive coordinator. The first-time head coach has created a mix of pro set, option and a dash of Canadian Football League, courtesy of offensive coordinator Charlie Taafe.

It's a good blend. Maryland finished 10-1 (it lost to Florida State), won the ACC and will appear in its first bowl game since 1990 when the sixth-ranked Terps meet No. 5 Florida on Wednesday in the Orange Bowl.

"The offensive book is like a bible," running back Bruce Perry said.

Perhaps the greatest feature of the Friedgen system is its balance. Maryland is 11th nationally in rushing (220.73 yards a game), 12th in scoring offense (35.45 points) and 16th in total offense (439.73), but lacks a statistical star.

The closest is Perry, who leads the Terps with 10 touchdowns and the ACC with 112.9 rushing yards a game. He was second in the ACC with 156.2 total yards.

The quarterback, senior Shaun Hill, is a largely unrecruited junior college transfer from Hutchinson, Kan., who was discovered when Terps scouts went hunting for defensive players. His numbers are average (2,380 passing yards; 13 passing touchdowns, 7 rushing), but he worked hard to become a part of the system, and the results are unquestionable.

"Maryland has a good offense, good balance," Florida defensive coordinator Jon Hoke said. "They run some option that always causes you to make sure you're disciplined."

Which is no small feat.

"It's a total system," Taafe, a two-time CFL coach of the year, told the Washington Post. "It involves every type of play that's ever been run in football. We're on the cutting edge, at the forefront of what's considered the preferred offensive style. We're right there."

Friedgen seems to enjoy spreading his weapons across the field. In a 42-21 defeat of Virginia, Friedgen constantly shifted Perry, then the nation's leading rusher. The object: not to let the Cavs key on him.

In one set, Perry and tailback Rich Parson each lined up behind a tackle, with fullback James Lynch behind Hill. The quarterback faked an option pitch to Lynch, then pivoted and flicked to Perry, who burst outside for a 45-yard gain to the Virginia 19 that set up the Terps' first touchdown.

In a 20-17 win against Georgia Tech the next week, Friedgen unveiled a new wrinkle by having a running back throw off the option.

"You always have a few gadgets every game," he said. "If you don't need them, you don't use them."

Players are not easily impressed with theory unless it has produced results. Friedgen's scheme reeks of it. In five seasons as Maryland's offensive coordinator from 1982-86, Friedgen helped develop three quarterbacks -- Boomer Esiason, Frank Reich and Stan Gelbaugh -- who spent at least 10 seasons in the NFL.

He joined Ross at Georgia Tech in 1987, and by 1990 had reshaped a moribund program into a 11-0-1 national champion. He returned to Tech as George O'Leary's offensive coordinator in 1997.

It was at Tech that Friedgen's offense developed its trademark balance. Tech teams averaged at least 200 yards rushing and passing in 1990-91, in 1998 and were one of two teams nationally to do it in 1999, with Bucs backup Joe Hamilton at quarterback.

In Hamilton's senior year, the team set 59 school records (including touchdowns, 59), led the NCAA in total offense and was second in scoring.

Self-effacing about his girth and his 33-year wait to become a head coach -- at his alma mater, no less -- Friedgen won't downplay his work ethic.

"The secret to my success is I prepare very well," he told the Post. "I didn't just pull that stuff out of a hat. If we had a third and goal at the 15, I had two or three plays ready."

His players know better than anyone.

"There are so many times I felt like we had won the game during the week before we even got out there on Saturday," Hamilton said. "We were so prepared. He pretty much knew what they would be in -- and at what time -- and what we needed to run. It was just a fact that (they were) at our mercy."

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