Terps' picture is greener on Weed Eater's other side

JOHN EISENBERG

December 17, 1990|By JOHN EISENBERG

SHREVEPORT, La. -- It has long been a sporting axiom, of course, that you just never know what's going to happen when you tee it up in the Poulan-Weed Eater Independence Bowl. The only certainty is that the field will be immaculately groomed.

The field was a shrine to weed-lessness Saturday night, and the Maryland Terrapins probably should have won a game. They were bigger and stronger than Louisiana Tech. But they didn't win. They tied. Big deal. It was a terrific game. Everyone had a great time.

In chronological order, the Terps won, lost, really lost, almost won, won, almost lost and finally finished at 34-34 when Tech kicked a field goal on the last play. It was football as Jackson Pollock would have painted it, with boldness, extremes and ambiguity, wide open to interpretation.

To the people grumbling that Maryland should have won (I know you're out there): Get a life. Who do you think you're cheering for, the 49ers? The Terps barely passed .500 this year. Lost four games by at least two touchdowns. "When you're in the middle of the pack, you just don't roll over people," linebacker Scott Whittier said.

Those in the Tech constituency are saying the same things today, that they probably should have won, that they let the Terps off the hook after leading 31-20 in the fourth quarter. They're right. Tech made up the difference in Maryland's size with a couple of fast, nifty, thousand-yard running backs. Throw in the home-field advantage, and it was a jump ball of a game.

It also was one of those bizarro games in which the outcome was determined almost by chance. The officiating was beyond miserable, calls blown all night. And the Terps would have had a 35th point had they not missed an extra point for the first time since leather helmets were in. Six years actually. So go figure.

"There were probably eight or 10 things that we'll look at on the zTC films and say, 'Oh, if only that had gone the right way for us, we'd have won the game,' " Maryland coach Joe Krivak said. "Maybe it's 10 or 15 things. It was one of those games with a lot of variables."

Indeed. And let's get right to the point on one: What were the refs smoking out there? Goodness. It was as if they were first-timers, maybe pulled out of some of those trucks running on the interstate alongside the stadium. "The coaches told us not to say anything," Whittier said, "but they were awful."

The worst call of the night, and maybe the worst call of the year short of Colorado's fifth down, gave Tech a touchdown right before halftime. Halfback Jason Davis stepped out of bounds at the 2 -- right in front of the side judge -- then leaped forward and put the ball in the end zone. Six points. Get out the Lysol. "I was out of bounds," Davis said.

The Maryland people thought they got the short end because of that, and because the score was set up by an interception that clearly hit the ground before the defender caught it. But Tech also got jobbed. A phantom pass interference set up the Terps' second touchdown. A second-quarter roughing the kicker should not have been called.

Woulda, coulda, shoulda. High, low, high, low. After taking a 14-0 lead, the Terps took a 31-6 hammering over the next 36 minutes. Ballgame? No. They rallied, but it appeared they were going to fall short until a heroic fourth-and-12 touchdown pass, from Scott Zolak to Barry Johnson, gave them a 34-31 lead with 52 seconds left. Ballgame? No. A Tech linebacker returned the squibbed kickoff 41 yards to set up the last field goal. Ballgame? Finally. Whew.

Let's face it: It was a minor bowl with a funny name, but it may be the best bowl of the season. There were nine touchdowns, a fake field goal, a halfback pass, a split end pass, a double-reverse on a kickoff, two fourth-and-goal touchdowns, 29 gains of at least 10 yards, a half-dozen shovel passes, a last-second field goal, 41 first downs, 700 yards of offense, six turnovers, 15 penalties, controversies by the batch and, of course, an immaculately groomed field.

The "variables" to which Krivak referred were almost endless. A dropped "Hail Mary" pass by Maryland's Dan Prunzik at the end of the first half. The improbability of a linebacker running a squibbed kick back 41 yards. The improbability of Johnson getting so open on fourth-and-12 in the final minute. A poor showing by DeArmas, normally so sure. The officials. Maryland's players foolishly letting Tech lure them into a trash-talking battle.

As for Tech's decision to settle for a tie in the end, no arguments. It would have been a thrill to see them go for the win from 10 yards out, but they've only been in Division I-A for two years, so to make a bowl and not lose is significant. "They can use this tie to build," Whittier said. "I wasn't surprised they went for it."

What does it mean for the Terps? They clearly were disappointed after the game, but that should fade. The fact is they still made a bowl for the first time since 1985 and gave a decent accounting of themselves, playing an upbeat brand of ball that will not frighten away recruits. That last point is the bottom line, really. They certainly didn't hurt themselves.

Maybe it won't look so terrific that they couldn't beat a Louisiana Tech -- a loss would have been embarrassing -- but anyone could recognize that Tech was a competent opponent. And again, let's not paint the Terps in colors too bright. This was a team that could easily have finished 2-10 or 9-3, a team that walked a fine line all season. They just walked it again Saturday. On a field that was edged to perfection.

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