UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- You wait for something to go wrong. For the kicker not to get on the field in time in the final seconds. For the fumble that gives away a chance to win. For the two-point conversion that slips through the receiver's hands. For a giant, black hole to open up on the field and swallow up the halfback running for the winning touchdown. (Just kidding, but would you be that surprised?)
For Maryland, against Penn State, something always goes wrong, usually at the worst possible moment. It has been happening for 29 years now (with one Terp-teasing tie thrown in), a history of failure that marks the season as surely as leaves changing colors. You just put on your sweater, sit in your seat and wait for the moment to come. It always does.
Yesterday, it came early, in the third quarter of Penn State's 24-10 victory, at a point when the score was tied and the Terps were doing the hardest hitting and visions of an upset were beginning to form on a cold, wet, utterly miserable day. "And then the air gets taken right out of us," Terps linebacker Scott Whittier said.
And on a fourth-and-21 play, of all things. What happens on fourth-and-21? Punts and prayers. Except when Maryland plays Penn State. The Nittany Lions were at the Maryland 30. They went for it. They weren't being bold. They just didn't have anything better to do. You didn't expect the game to turn there, didn't expect the collapse, the moment. But it happened. A fourth-and-21 touchdown. "Pretty hard to believe," said the Terps' Rick Fleece.
Yes, particularly considering that the Terps were in the perfect defense for the play the Nittany Lions ran, and that cornerback Michael Hollis did a creditable job of covering the receiver. No matter. Penn State scored, and the Terps were never the same. "You just can't have that happen," coach Joe Krivak said. "If you want to win, fourth-and-long, that just can't happen."
On the previous play, Maryland linebacker Jack Bradford sacked Penn State's Tony Sacca (does that make it a sacked-a?) for TC 12-yard loss, apparently ending State's first drive of the third quarter. "I guess I was expecting them to try a field goal," Whittier said. "But the wind was against them. A field goal was probably a 50-50 shot. So it wasn't a shock."
Penn State coach Joe Paterno did not hesitate. "We didn't think we could kick the field goal into the wind," he said, "and I didn't want to punt from the 30. I figured we'd see what we could get done and, at worst, maybe pick up some yards and push them back. It just looked like a percentage call to me."
The Nittany Lions lined up with two receivers on the left side of the field. Hollis, the cornerback, covered the one on the outside, David Daniels. When the ball was snapped, Daniels ran straight downfield for 10 yards, then cut toward the goal post, running a post pattern. Hollis ran with him, but Sacca threw a perfect leading pass and Daniels dived headlong and . . .
Suddenly, the Terps had questions to answer, primarily because Hollis was alone covering Daniels. Where was the free safety, Mike Thomas? And why did Sacca's fake to the fullback actually freeze several defenders, including Thomas? Did they all really think he would hand off on fourth-and-21? And why didn't the Terps just flood the field with defensive backs?
Krivak could only shake his head at the collective mistake. "You know they're not going to run the ball there, so [if you're on the field] you shouldn't bite [for the fake handoff]," he said. "It just shouldn't happen, is all."
Thomas said he fell for the fake "a little. I guess I watched the quarterback a little too long. And I was watching the other receiver [who lined up inside Daniels]. I probably should have lined up a little deeper. By the time I got there, the guy was catching the ball."
Said Hollis: "I never expected them to run a post pattern, because the safeties are there, and you have a better chance of isolating an end on me if you run toward the sidelines. That [the post pattern] caught us totally off guard. I'm supposed to get help from the safety. But the guy made a great catch."
To understand how important the play was, consider what would have happened had the pass fallen incomplete. The Terps would have had the ball at their 30, tie score. And the Terps offense had been terrific in the first half, driving for one touchdown and holding the ball for seven minutes on another possession. The Terps, in fact, had dominated the first 30 minutes, allowing points only on an interception return and after a fumbled punt.
But the fourth-and-21 touchdown clearly shook up the whole team. The Terps' only first down in their next four series came on a pass-interference penalty. They just lost their spark. And after out-hitting the Nittany Lions in the first 30 minutes, they started getting crunched. "It was a real downer to give up a touchdown like that," Hollis said. "It hurt us real bad."
There was more to the game, of course. Penn State shut down the Terps offense in the second half. Sacca completed seven of 11 passes in the second half after a 1-of-5 first half. The Terps handed over those 10 first-half points. But, in the end, the fourth-and-21 touchdown was the game. It was the moment. The one that always comes. Always.