COLLEGE PARK - The glory days of the University of Maryland's football program officially returned to Byrd Stadium last night.
There was a sellout crowd of 52,462, the fourth largest in the stadium's history. There were traffic jams along Route 1. Tailgating parties were allowed to start 5 1/2 hours before the game. Three major bowl representatives were in attendance, and the contest was on national television.
And then Maryland beat Clemson, 37-20, to take sole possession of first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Just like the old days, when Clemson and Maryland used to battle for league supremacy in the 1970s and '80s. The win touched off a wild celebration as the crowd stormed the field and tore down the goal posts despite token resistance from law-enforcement officials.
But let the kids celebrate. They haven't had a lot to cheer about in regard to football for nearly two decades.
Maryland (9-1 overall, 6-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) virtually assured itself a major bowl bid with the win over Clemson, a game the Terps took control of when quarterback Shaun Hill threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to running back Bruce Perry with 5:26 left in the third quarter to put Maryland ahead 24-6.
Representatives of the Orange, Gator, Peach and Tangerine bowls were here watching the Terps, who haven't played in a bowl game since tying Louisiana Tech, 34-34, in the 1990 Independence Bowl.
That tells you how far the program has come. The Independence Bowl was a big deal then. Now, Maryland fans are throwing oranges onto the playing field. In less than one season, Ralph Friedgen has turned this program around and given Maryland fans something to cheer about other than the nationally ranked men's basketball team. It's another feel-good movement.
"They [opponents] still think we're that team from last year or the year before," Friedgen said. "By the time they find out we're not, it's too late."
Before the season, the Terps were expected to show improvement and finish around .500. But no one expected first place in the ACC. Ahead of Virginia, Georgia Tech and Florida State, which was upset, 34-28, by N.C. State yesterday. Oops, forgot one. Clemson. Maryland had only beaten the Tigers once in 15 previous games, the previous time in 1992.
And Maryland dominated.
The Terps also accomplished it in front of 60 top recruits. Any youngster looking for a college home had to be impressed with what he saw last night.
This was a big-time college football atmosphere. These are the sights and sounds we are accustomed to seeing on fall and winter nights in Nebraska or Oklahoma, or in Florida or Alabama, not at Maryland. Maybe no player epitomizes Maryland's rise more than Hill. The senior from Parsons, Kan., was a quarterback no one wanted out of high school. He doesn't have great speed or a real strong arm. He isn't flashy either.
He just wins. An overachiever has put Maryland on top.
Hill had another typical performance last night, completing 12 of 21 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns. There were times he made some ugly throws, but he has so much resiliency. The kid never stays down long. He threw a 33-yard beauty to wide receiver Guilian Gary down the left sideline with 7:33 left in the second quarter. His best pass may have been a floater onto the fingertips of receiver Jafar Williams for a 29-yard reception nearly four minutes later.
But this night wasn't just about the Maryland offense.
Maryland shut down the most dangerous player in college football in Clemson quarterback Woodrow Dantzler. In two previous games, Dantzler averaged 312 yards of total offense against Maryland. He has basically been a one-man show for the Tigers.
There were concerns before the game about how the Terps would defend him. Would they play their usual style with an assortment of blitzes, or would they play more controlled and risk not giving up the big play? The Terps did what good teams do and played their attacking style. They dictated to Clemson and made the Tigers adjust.
Dantzler was sacked numerous times, and Maryland picked off four passes, including three by Dantzler.
He was on the bench midway through the fourth quarter, and had to be wondering when one of his teammates was going to block Maryland linebacker E.J. Henderson. Dantzler had 30 yards rushing on 11 carries, and completed only 11 of 22 passes for 153 yards.
Clemson put a brief scare into Maryland in the fourth quarter with two touchdowns, including a 100-yard kickoff return by Derrick Hamilton, but Maryland wiped away any comeback attempt with a dominating running game that controlled the clock.
As time wound down, most of the crowd stayed around to savor the moment. They poured onto the field as the Terps celebrated at midfield. Somewhere out there, Friedgen became lost, but his accomplishment sure wasn't.
This kind of celebration has been a long time coming, since former Terps coach Bobby Ross left College Park after the 1986 season.
Ross' replacement, Joe Krivak, couldn't win here. Neither could Mark Duffner or Ron Vanderlinden. But Friedgen, a former Maryland player, remembered the good times he shared here as an assistant under Ross.
Now he is living the good times again as Maryland's head coach.