CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - It happens to all teams two or three times a year. It's called a clunker. That's when your entire team has an out-of-body experience. The University of Maryland's football team had one last night.
In the two years that Ralph Friedgen has been Maryland's head coach, the Terps have never played as poorly as they did last night in losing to Virginia, 48-13, before a crowd of 58,358 at Scott Stadium.
The Terps have looked bad before, losing to Florida State twice, to Florida in the Orange Bowl last season and in the thrashing by Notre Dame in the 2002 season opener.
But at least those teams had better talent. After their two opening drives last night, the Terps were never in the game again mentally or physically. Virginia has improved late in the season, but there is no way the Cavaliers are 25 points better than Maryland.
Actually, you expect weird things to happen to the Terps in Charlottesville, where they haven't won a game now in six attempts since 1990. The worst part is that Maryland wasted such a great opportunity because North Carolina State upset Florida State yesterday. A win would have left Maryland a half game out of first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference with one game remaining.
But the Terps turned in a dud.
There is no other way to put it.
"We just had a bad day, and Virginia had a very good day," said Friedgen. "I'm crushed. Winning a conference championship and maybe going to a BCS bowl doesn't come along every day. We had that chance tonight and we didn't take it. It bothers me. It really, really bothers me."
Where to begin?
You can start almost anywhere. Numerous missed tackles. Dropped passes. Turnovers. Lack of adjustments. A loss of composure.
But where this game turned was early in the first quarter. Maryland had already driven 80 yards for a touchdown on its opening possession, and had driven another 76 yards to the Virginia 12. But on fourth-and-one, Friedgen, the ultimate gambler, chose to go for a field goal instead of the first down.
Poor decision. He had the Cavaliers on the ropes at home, and a chance to suck all of the momentum out of Virginia and the home crowd with a 14-0 lead. Instead, the usually reliable Nick Novak had a low, 28-yard field goal attempt blocked.
On the Terps' next possession, receiver Scooter Monroe dropped a possible touchdown pass around midfield with 14:43 left in the second quarter. There was no one around him - not one Cavalier in the picture on the Jumbotron at Scott Stadium. That could have put Maryland ahead 14-3 and, if things had worked out in the first two drives, 21-3.
Instead, quarterback Scott McBrien threw an interception at the Maryland 39 two plays later. On the following play, Virginia fullback Jason Snelling scored on a 27 yard reception on a short pass that was thrown into the left flat.
The only thing left was for the fat lady to sing.
"We couldn't convert on the plays that could have changed the momentum," said Friedgen. "We had turnovers and fumbles, things that we can't do if we're going to win football games."
There are times when you wonder how a team can come out so flat with so much at stake, but that happens in sports, especially when the athletes are between the ages of 18 and 21.
Also, let's be honest. Maryland may have won eight straight before last night, but this is no great team.
It's a tribute to Friedgen that the Terps hadn't imploded before last night. Georgia Tech had. So had N.C. State, Virginia and almost every other ACC team.
There was optimism that the Terps would turn up the intensity level after halftime once Friedgen informed them that Florida State had lost, but Virginia opened the second half with a five-play, 72-yard scoring drive that ended with receiver Billy McMullen taking a handoff on an end-around and throwing a 37-yard touchdown pass to Micahel McGrew with 12:59 left in the third quarter for a 27-7 Cavaliers lead.
Maryland defensive end Durrand Roundtree had McMullen for a second in his grasp for what could have been an 11 yard loss, but McMullen shook him off to complete the play. It figured. It was that kind of night for Maryland.
Maybe the Terps left their A-game in Clemson's Death Valley last week.
"We didn't practice well last week," said Friedgen. "I worked as hard as I've ever worked to get a team ready this week, and look what happened. I mentioned it [N.C. State beating Florida State] at halftime, but we were just emotionally drained. They tried hard to get it up, they really did, but they just couldn't do it."
Virginia scored off another Maryland turnover in the second quarter when running back Chris Downs took a short pass in the right flat and, after giving a second effort, fumbled, with the Cavaliers recovering at the Maryland 22 with 3:10 in the half. Replays showed that Downs' knee had touched the ground before the fumble, but the ruling wasn't going to be changed.
It just wasn't Maryland's night.