COLLEGE PARK - We had arrived at the point where the doomed prisoner asks: "Any word from the governor?" And then the phone rings.
For years now, in just this situation at Byrd Stadium, if the phone did actually ring, it would be somebody ordering pizza, which is why Maryland's last-minute reprieve yesterday was so shocking. Folks, you're reading another postcard from the edge.
"This was one in a thousand," Maryland wide receiver Barry Johnson would say afterward.
Scott Whittier, a linebacker somehow in his sixth year at Maryland (and therefore deserving of all your sympathy), was equally incredulous.
"Since I've been here," he said, "we've lost our share of one-point games. I couldn't stand to lose another one. This makes up for all the back luck we've had through the years."
What happened yesterday doesn't happen. You had to be there to believe it, and, given the size of what barely constituted a crowd, you probably weren't. It went this way: With 1:27 left in the game and Maryland losing to North Carolina State, 12-10, quarterback Scott Zolak threw his fourth interception of a long afternoon. State took over on its 45, a victory all but assured. Later, long after the fact, the Maryland players were saying how TC they kept their heads up and never gave up. That's what you have to say, but that's not exactly how it was.
Dan DeArmas, who would go on to kick the winning field goal, was on one knee praying, when, on the next play, State running back Aubrey Shaw fumbled the ball away without ever getting hit. DeArmas knew something good had happened only when the crowd erupted.
Zolak, who would complete two long passes to set up the field goal, was standing on the sideline stunned, thinking he had exhausted his opportunities for the day. "I couldn't believe it," he said, "when I saw the ball bouncing on the ground. I just hoped somebody would jump on it."
Gene Thomas, who caught the big pass, who always catches the big pass, hadn't exactly given up hope, but. . .
"I was thinking what it was like to be 2-2," he said.
Well, Maryland is 3-1. The Terps' winning scores have come with 2:27 to play, 1:01 to play and, yesterday, with 11 seconds remaining. Their loss came by one point. But, in a very weird season, nothing was as bizarre as yesterday.
"It was a gift from the heavens," said Barry Johnson, who also caught a big pass. "We could be 4-0, but we're 3-1, and I thank God for that."
After the fumble, that gift from the heavens, Maryland took over at midfield with 1:22 left in the game, the players as pumped up as Hans and Franz.
"We knew we'd win then," Thomas said. "Something good would happen."
But the good would have to wait for the bad and then the ugly. Before Maryland could snap the ball, there came a 5-yard penalty for illegal procedure when a lineman jumped too soon. First-and-15. Then came another 5-yard penalty, same call. First-and-20. The Terps were in full retreat.
"I was thinking, 'Let's just get the ball hiked and give ourselves a chance to do something,' " Johnson said.
The ball got hiked, and Zolak hit Johnson over the middle for a 20-yard gain and a first down. Suddenly, anything was possible.
Two plays later, on a State blitz, with Thomas racing a defender down the sideline, Zolak threw the ball up for grabs, well short of Thomas, who came back to haul it in for a 28-yard gain. The field goal was coming, so was a 13-12 win, and it was so unbelievable that a flock of students would race onto the field after the game to tear down a goal post. Imagine. And nobody minded, understandable given the rare chances for celebration in these parts.
After all, next week Maryland travels to Michigan. It doesn't seem right even to bring that up, but the game was already lurking in the recesses of everyone's mind. After the loss last week to Clemson, Maryland was looking straight in the face of a three-game losing streak to be. This was a game Maryland pretty much had to win.
The defense, which held State to 12 points, made it all possible. Lubo Zizakovic alone blocked an extra-point try and a field-goal try yesterday. Mike Thomas covered the fumble. And so it went. It is the defense that has stepped up so remarkably this season, time and again giving an erratic offense the opportunity to find Gene Thomas somewhere in the closing moments.
"We take what our defense gives us," Johnson said. "Nobody expected us to be 3-1 now."
Nobody expected it with 1:27 to play yesterday either, and that has to include coach Joe Krivak, now three very possible victories away from his first winning season. Although N.C. State blew this game, Maryland still had to come back to win it.
"Ten years from now," Krivak said of the day's work, "all I know is it's going to be a W."