RALEIGH, N.C. - The Maryland Terrapins completed a magical journey from mediocrity to the sublime last night, squeezing out an electric 23-19 victory over North Carolina State to win their first outright Atlantic Coast Conference football title since 1985.
It was the perfect ending to an almost perfect regular season.
At 10-1, the Terps are headed for a prime spot - either the Orange Bowl, the Sugar Bowl or possibly the Fiesta Bowl - in the Bowl Championship Series.
Maryland hasn't played in a major bowl since the 1976 season, when it went to the Cotton Bowl and lost to Houston, 30-21.
The Terps beat the Wolfpack the hard way - overcoming turnovers, missed tackles and blown opportunities. Quarterback Shaun Hill threw for one touchdown and ran for another in the second half to wipe out State leads of 9-0 and 12-10.
When the Terps needed to make a play, they did. Down 19-16 in the final two minutes, they drove 61 yards in 10 plays to get the winning score, an 8-yard pass from Hill to Guilian Gary with 41 seconds left.
It was Gary's second touchdown catch of the game.
"I don't think I've ever been prouder [of this team]," said first-year coach Ralph Friedgen. "This was a night where we just couldn't get it to go, but they stuck it out and made things happen. I told them earlier, if you take this into life with you and work through it, you can do anything, and here they did it. These guys fought for it. I'm so glad they won the ACC outright. We beat everyone we needed to beat."
The Terps seemingly had victory snatched away when wide receiver Rich Parson not only was caught from behind at the 1 on a long pass, but fumbled the ball away in the end zone when he tried to change hands with the ball, late in the fourth quarter.
Doggedly, the Terps refused to lose, symbolizing their amazing season.
"What poise," said athletic director Debbie Yow, characterizing the game and the season.
The victory signaled the return of the program to elite status after an extended dormancy, and almost certainly assured Friedgen of national coach of the year honors.
In the 14 years since Bobby Ross left College Park after winning three ACC titles in five seasons, Maryland posted a dismal overall record of 55-98-2, with just two winning seasons.
The Terps went through three head coaches before Yow hired Friedgen from Georgia Tech, where he was offensive coordinator. A former guard for the Terps in the 1960s and a member of Ross' staff in the 1980s, Friedgen has been little short of miracle worker.
In 11 games, he turned the moribund program into a burgeoning powerhouse.
Yow said Friedgen brought a wide range of assets to the job, perhaps most importantly leadership.
"He has extraordinary leadership skills," Yow said. "He's smart, he has technical knowledge of the game, he has the ability to communicate with players. He is an effective recruiter, and he leads well. He stays calm in the midst of the swirl."
This year, he became the only coach in ACC history to win a championship in his first year as head coach. This is the first Terps team since 1976 - and only the fifth ever - to win 10 games.
From the beginning, Friedgen installed a new sense of discipline to the program, and raised the bar on expectations. He raised it so high, in fact, that Yow felt compelled to caution him on overextending himself.
"Usually the athletic director pushes the coach in a revenue sport to set goals that are very high and challenging," Yow said. "In this regard, we had a role reversal. We'd sit and talk about our goals, and Ralph would want to be more aggressive on goal-setting. I would encourage him to be more long-term.
"In other words, six or seven wins would be a great step forward over what we had done the last 15 years. That'd be very positive. So I was not pushing him to set higher goals."[But] we're a patient group. We've been through a lot. We just wanted to build a solid foundation. And he's overachieved. He, his staff and the team have overachieved in an amazing manner."
It has been a remarkable transformation. Perhaps the most critical element was decided even before Friedgen accepted the job at the end of last season.
When he and Yow sat across from each other setting up parameters for their discussion, he raised a critical issue: Getting the right staff in place. Yow, who coached women's college basketball at Kentucky and Florida, was ready with her projections.
"He said, `I need money for coaches. Are we talking about the A group, B group or C group?' " Yow said. "I slid the paper across the table to him. He looked at it and said, `I guess we're talking about the A group.' "
That A group ultimately meant bringing in Charlie Taaffe from the Canadian Football League's Montreal Alouettes to be offensive coordinator and Gary Blackney from Bowling Green to be defensive coordinator. Both left head coaching positions to join Friedgen.
Sun columnist Mike Preston contributed to this report.