PITTSBURGH -- It is one of the most difficult decisions in football. To tie or not to tie? University of Maryland coach Joe Krivak has had to make the choice before. He went for the field goal and managed a tie with Penn State two years ago. The same year, he gambled for the win and lost at North Carolina State.
Krivak gambled again yesterday, and he lost, as No. 17 Pittsburgh hung onto a 24-20 victory before 38,328 at Pitt Stadium.
Maryland's last drive ended yesterday with quarterback Jim Sandwisch's desperate, underthrown 19-yard pass intended for receiver Richie Harris being intercepted at the 1-yard line by strong safety Doug Whaley with 23 seconds left in the game.
But only minutes earlier, Sandwisch had thrown a 58-yard pass that wide receiver Marcus Badgett one-handed for a touchdown that brought Maryland within 24-20 with 6 minutes, 4 seconds left in the game.
Krivak called for a timeout and chose to go for the two-point conversion, even though place-kicker Dan DeArmas, who converted on 14 of 18 field-goal attempts last year and two of two this year, had started running onto the field. Sandwisch, hurried by Pitt outside linebacker Ricardo McDonald, underthrew open H-back Frank Wycheck in the left corner of the end zone on the conversion play.
The play forced Maryland (1-3) to go for the touchdown instead of the tying field goal on its next possession. It eventually caused the Terps to lose their third straight game heading into an Atlantic Coast Conference game with No. 21 Georgia Tech on Saturday in Atlanta.
It also left Krivak open for second-guessing.
"I had already made up my mind that I didn't want to tie this game," said Krivak. "I don't believe that you play this kind of team, with this kind of ranking, for a tie. I felt that if we made the two, a field goal puts us in a position if we got it back and got it down. If we didn't make the two, then we needed two scores. I think our kids deserved a chance to win."
But didn't the failed attempt put a lot of pressure on Sandwisch, a starter for the first time in five years? And is a tie against a ranked team, after getting routed in your previous game, that bad, especially with two more games on the road? Also, why not wait until the last drive to decide whether to tie?
"The decision was made before we scored," said Krivak. "I made the decision. There is no such thing as a moral victory. Two or three years from now, people will see that we were 1-3 and lost to Pittsburgh. They're not going to care about the situation. The difference between the decision I made here and at Penn State two years ago was that we tied the game with a field goal in the last minute. This time, there was still a lot of time left when we scored that last touchdown."
Maryland players agreed with Krivak's decision.
"We didn't come here to tie, but to win and beat a nationally ranked team," said Terps linebacker Mike Jarmolowich. "Nobody wants to come close to beating a team. You either put it in the W column or you lose. That's the way we feel."
Sandwisch said: "The play was there. All we had to do was execute, and we didn't get it done. I agree with the coach. If we win, then it's a great win for us. I have no doubt that we'll regroup. Basically, this was a game where they made most of the big plays, and we made only a few."
Maryland never did figure out a way to stop Pitt's passing game (353 yards, 511 total offense) especially that tight-end delay over the middle. And Maryland's offense was as inconsistent as it has been all year, with the Terps gaining a misleading 385 yards in total offense.
This game could have been a blowout except that Pitt's offense was as inept as Maryland's. Pitt had a 21-yard field goal blocked, botched a hold on a 55-yard field-goal attempt and had drives end at the Maryland 48, 34, 20 and 39.
Pitt (5-0) was able to score 10 points in the fourth quarter to seal the victory. Tailback Vince Williams scored on a 2-yard run with 14:18 left in the game to complete an eight-play, 51-yard drive that put the Panthers ahead, 21-14.
Nearly seven minutes later, Scott Kaplan kicked a 19-yard field goal to push Pitt ahead, 24-14. The big play in the drive was a 28-yard pass from quarterback Alex Van Pelt to Junior Green, who had beaten cornerback Brandon Bertha down the left sideline. It was one of several long passes with which the Panthers burned
Another was a 58-yard pass to wide-out Dietrich Jells in the second period to tie the score at 7-7 and another one nearly eight minutes later, a 27-yard touchdown pass to tight end Eric Seaman that put Pitt ahead, 14-7. Van Pelt completed 27 of 45 passes with two touchdowns. Both times, the Panthers split Maryland's secondary, and neither time did the safeties provide help.
"I think one time Andre [Vaughn, free safety] got sucked up on the play action, but he's new to the defense," said Maryland cornerback Mike Thomas. "Give Pitt some credit. They had some outstanding receivers who were really fast."
Maryland, though, managed to hang with Pitt. The Terps took a 7-0 lead on a 19-yard run by halfback Mark Mason with 4:19 left in the period. The Terps, finally getting their wide receivers into the offense, tied the score at 14 with 2:05 left in the half, as Sandwisch, rolling to his left under pressure, passed 23 yards to Jason Kremus for a touchdown.
But in the third period, there were two big plays that hurt Maryland. On a fourth-and-five from its 31, Maryland faked a punt Wycheck took the snap, rolled to his right, threw a pass that bounced off Badgett into the arms of the Terps' Joel Goode, who was tackled at the Pitt 36 with 2:42 left in the period. But Maryland was called for having an illegal player downfield.
On Pitt's first offensive play, Bertha intercepted a Van Pelt pass, but free safety Bill Inge was called for pass interference.
"Momentum busters," said Krivak. "I guess they were the right calls, but they sure hurt."