EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- When Bobby Ross was at Maryland, he told a story of being stopped by a little old lady during one of his daily jogs around the College Park campus.
"She asked me two questions. The first was, 'Are you Coach Ross?' The second was, 'When are you going to beat Penn State?' " Ross said before his last matchup with the Nittany Lions, in 1986.
Ross hopes to have a different answer tonight than he did during his five seasons at Maryland, which included four defeats by a total of 13 points. But he will have to do it with a different team, Georgia Tech.
Asked whether playing Penn State in the season opener might help, Ross said, "At Maryland, we played them early and we played them late, and the only thing I beat Joe Paterno at was on the flip of the coin."
A combination of bad execution and bad luck prevented Ross from coming out on top. In 1984, Maryland couldn't get its field-goal unit on in the waning seconds of a 25-24 defeat at Beaver Stadium. In 1985, a late fumble deep in Penn State territory led to 20-18 loss at Byrd Stadium. In 1986, the Terrapins scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns, only to lose, 17-15, when they were stopped short on a pair of two-point conversions.
"We had the talent," said Ross. "We just didn't win."
Although Ross is downplaying the significance of beating a Paterno-coached team, his players are not. "I definitely think Coach Ross wants this one bad," said cornerback Willie Clay. "Deep down, he wants to beat Coach Paterno."
Paterno, whose team has lost its last two season openers as well as its previous appearance in the Kickoff Classic (a 44-6 &L drubbing by Nebraska in the 1983 inaugural), said that there was common thread running through all of his previous confrontations with Ross' teams.
"The thing that stands out was that they were all tough games," said Paterno.
One more thing stands out.
MA But until yesterday, nobody had reminded Ross of that lately.
Ross vs. Paterno
* 1982: After leading, 24-23, in the the third quarter, Maryland trailed, 39-31, with 1:08 left and the ball on its 28. But a Boomer Esiason pass was intercepted to end the Terrapins' chances.
* 1984: With Maryland trailing, 25-24, with 4 seconds left and at the Penn State 37, there was confusion on the sidelines, and place-kicker Jess Atkinson never made it onto the field for a long field-goal attempt.
* 1985: Ranked No. 7 in the country and No. 1 by Sport magazine, Maryland opened the season at Byrd Stadium against No. 18 Penn State in 96-degree heat. Stan Gelbaugh's first pass was picked off by Michael Zordich and returned 32 yards for a touchdown. After rallying from 17-0 to lead, 18-17, Maryland fell behind again, 20-18, and with 38 seconds left, Alvin Blount fumbled at the Penn State 24.
* 1986: After trailing, 17-3, with 5 minutes left, Maryland cut Penn State's lead to 2 points with a pair of touchdowns passes from Dan Henning, the first a 16-yarder to Vernon Joines and the second a 27-yarder to John Bonato on fourth down with 14 seconds left. The Terps missed a 2-point conversion after both touchdowns.