COLLEGE PARK -- Maryland's football team fantasized about following first-year coach Ron Vanderlinden to a bowl game.
He put on a good front yesterday and talked about winning out in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but after a 31-14 midseason loss to West Virginia, the Terps appear just as capable of going 2-9 as they do of completing some quixotic quest for a trip south in December.
"We were good enough to win. We played hard enough to win. We didn't play smart enough to win," Vanderlinden said. "I'm getting tired of would'ves and could'ves and should'ves. We need to start winning these games."
The opportunistic team that Maryland (2-4) fielded in wins over Temple and Duke didn't show for 31,210 at Byrd Stadium. Early mistakes gave the Mountaineers a 14-0 lead, and late ones kept the Terps from drawing within one score in the fourth quarter.
It isn't going to be a pleasant session when Vanderlinden reviews this film with his team, as every facet of Maryland will come under criticism.
The Terps' offense gained a season-high 319 yards, but a week after it played turnover-free, it gave the ball up three times. All were painful, starting with a Brian Cummings pass that Barrett Green intercepted and returned 49 yards for a touchdown.
Maryland's defense held Amos Zereoue in check for a half, but it appeared preoccupied with the nation's second-leading rusher. Sophomore quarterback Marc Bulger faced soft coverage in the secondary and a token pass rush, which allowed the Mountaineers to convert two-thirds (10 of 15) of their third downs.
The Terps' special teams took several steps backward. Freshman Brian Kopka was wide right on a 33-yard field goal, and the kickoff return unit twice tried ill-advised returns.
Maryland was even a mess on the sideline. From Vanderlinden on down, the Terps were livid with a reversed call by the officials on the final turnover, but there was no excuse for the unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty the bench drew two plays later.
There were 10 minutes left when that flag dropped. Instead of facing a third-and-10, it gave West Virginia a first down at its own 36 and added momentum for its final touchdown.
It also infuriated Vanderlinden. He ripped off his headset, spiked it and started hollering toward a group of reserves that included the guilty party, whom he declined to identify.
The frustrating sequence involved indecision by the officiating crew from the Big East Conference.
Cummings threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to freshman Mike Hull that drew Maryland within 24-14 with 11: 20 left. Nate Terry fumbled the kickoff and Kenny Rogers recovered at the Mountaineers' 22-yard line. On first down, tailback Buddy Rodgers lost his balance and the ball.
One official said that Maryland retained possession, but a side judge came in while the scrum was being separated and awarded the ball to West Virginia.
"This isn't the playground, where whoever comes up with the ball on the ground gets it," Cummings said. "They called Maryland ball, and then they switched it. The bottom line is that Darryl Gilliam came up with the ball. I thought that was really poor.
"We shouldn't be putting the ball on the ground anyway."
West Virginia (5-1) will probably make its debut in the Top 25 today, and the Mountaineers will play in the Fiesta Bowl if they can get by Virginia Tech and Syracuse, but this was one of the best teams in the slipping Big East against one of the most undistinguished in the rising Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Mountaineers aren't a Florida State or North Carolina, but Don Nehlen's team played the way Vanderlinden wants his to, as the Terps got lessons in play-action and third-down efficiency.
"Our inability to get the ball back on third down proved critical," Vanderlinden said. "Our inability to convert on third down was just as bad. That's just not good football."
On West Virginia's second possession, Bulger burned a blitz with a 27-yard completion to tight end Chad Wable on third-and-three. On third-and-four, he threw to Wable for six yards. On third-and-seven, he gave the ball to Zereoue on a delay, and 16 yards later, West Virginia had a lead it would never surrender.
Maryland's next third down came on the second play of the second quarter. Freshman LaMont Jordan, who got his first start at tailback, came out of the backfield to the left flat, but Cummings threw behind him and into the hands of strong safety Greene.
Greene's return made it 14-0. Wipe away that play and put Kopka's missed field goal through the uprights, and it would have been 10-7 Maryland at the half, but Vanderlinden is tired of those rationalizations.
West Virginia took the second-half kickoff and moved 76 yards for a touchdown and a 21-7 lead. The Terps kept fighting, but both of their touchdowns needed fourth-down gambles, and their ability to come back is as limited as their margin of error.
"A lot of teams can overcome their mistakes. We couldn't," Cummings said. "Seventy-five to 80 percent of the time, we execute. Then there's the other 20 percent of the time, when we lose our heads."
Next for Maryland
Opponent: Wake Forest
Site: Groves Stadium, Winston-Salem, N.C.
When: Saturday, 1 p.m.
Yesterday: Lost to No. 5 North Carolina, 30-12
Pub Date: 10/12/97