CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- It wasn't just another loss. It was an utter embarrassment, a head-to-toe-and-back-again shaking that put back in play all those questions the Maryland Terrapins thought they had exorcised from their little world.
Is the coach's job safe? Is the team any good? Is the program moving in the right direction? The Terrapins had hoped all that was behind them. It is not. Their 34-10 loss to North Carolina yesterday -- and it was worse than the score indicated -- left them as open to punches as Buster Douglas' jaw.
The Terps had a 5-3 record beforehand and were talking about bowls. But an unranked North Carolina team pushed them around as though they were winless. The disparity in the numbers was startling. Twenty-eight first downs to 13. Two hundred-eight yards rushing to seven. Ten penalties to one.
What a hammering this was, an endless reel of missed receivers, bad passes, blown coverages, shoddy tackles, mental mistakes. Had Carolina's offense not stalled out inside the Terps 20 four times in the first half, the score easily could have reached 50-10. And that wasn't Michigan across the line. That was a young Carolina, with one senior starter, that had struggled to beat Wake Forest.
So suddenly, now, it is easy to ask the questions again. Are the Terps any good? They didn't look too bad at 5-3, with all the losses to top 25 teams. But look again. Who have they beaten? A down West Virginia. A down Duke. A weak Wake. A North Carolina State that handed them the game. A Virginia Tech no one will remember. Not exactly a murderers' row in shoulder pads.
And keep looking closer and closer. The Terps were tied with Virginia Tech -- at home -- with two minutes left. They beat West Virginia with a miracle pass. A late fumble gave them a chance to beat Duke. A very late fumble by an untouched runner turned a loss into a win against State. Only the Wake win was easy, as most Wake wins are.
Anyway, revising history along those lines, the Terps could just as easily be 1-6-2 as 5-4. Their offense gains yards, but it has fallen short of 20 points in six of nine games. And their defense, supposedly a strength, turned a very average Carolina quarterback into Joe Montana for a day.
Are the Terps any good, or just lucky? It's an unfortunate question to have to ask after such a fun season, but now it should be asked. And attached to it is another tough one for people who believe Joe Krivak is a good soul who deserves a new contract: Is the program headed in the right direction?
The other coach on the field yesterday, Carolina's Mack Brown, is in his third season. He's a bright guy with a lot of enthusiasm who has recruited just about every good player in his state since he showed up. He started from scratch and had to endure two 1-10 seasons, but now he is 5-2-1 and clearly building a contender. Carolina is going to be tough from now on.
Krivak, in his fourth year, has established no such promising foundation. His team is not young and rebuilding. In fact, he will lose a dozen key players off this team. Krivak has recruited some high-quality players -- Gene Thomas is a major-league receiver -- but when you hold him up against the light Brown is casting, he kind of pales, doesn't he?
Hey, the Terps beat Carolina by 38 points last year, and now they lose by 24. That's a 62-point swing in 12 months. And after playing Georgia Tech close on the road last year, they got blown out at home by Tech this year, 31-3. Is that a program moving in the right direction? Or the wrong direction? Or no direction at all? These questions just won't go away.
The most essential question of all, of course, is whether Krivak will return next season. It looked pretty good before yesterday's debacle. Everyone knows he's an upstanding coach, the kind that makes a perfect statement about priorities in these cynical times. Plus, he is an old friend of the Terps' new athletic director, Andy Geiger.
But let's not patronize the man. He is a football coach who has never had a winning season. Beating Carolina yesterday would have pushed him over that small, but measurable, mountaintop. At 6-3, he would have had bowl scouts in the press box. Instead, with Penn State and Virginia left on his schedule, he's probably looking now at a 5-6 finish. A 17-26-1 total for his four years.
Is that enough, considering his other attributes, to get him rehired? Maybe it's enough for a contract extension of a year or so, but is this really the coach in whom the Terps want to invest their future? A coach with a 5-15 road record?
You almost could have convinced yourself before yesterday. The man is just so likable. But yesterday was a bad day for the pro-Krivak lobby. Smiling before the game, Geiger was exhaling long, slow sighs afterward. His decision had just gotten a lot tougher.
There is no doubting Krivak's bright football mind, but there is some doubt about his ability to motivate his players, and his ability to run the show, put all the X's and O's together. Yesterday's sleepwalking in the biggest game of the year will not help dispel such notions. On a day when the Terps could have taken a giant step forward, they took a pathetically easy fall. And just like magic, all the old questions were back.