Don't expect a knockout blow when North Carolina State and Maryland get together today at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C.
"Every year, this game is like a boxing match that goes to a decision," said Maryland offensive lineman Lamar Bryant. "One team isn't going to put the other away early."
The last three contests - all close games - have one other thing in common, though. They've all been last-minute Maryland victories. In 2000, the Terps beat N.C. State in double overtime, 35-28. In 2001, Maryland held on in the final minute for a 23-19 win. Last year, Nick Novak kicked a 26-yard field goal with 34 seconds left (set up by a 36-yard catch by Steve Suter), and the Terps won, 24-21.
"We haven't beat Maryland since I got here," said N.C. State coach Chuck Amato. "We could have very easily won every one. ... But all those are things of the past."
Still, that recent success has allowed Maryland's players to express a quiet confidence this week. Yes, they'll have all they can handle in Wolfpack quarterback Philip Rivers. But it's Rivers, not Maryland, who straps on a helmet today with something to prove.
"[Rivers] told a couple guys over the summer that it would mean everything to beat us this year," said Terps cornerback Curome Cox. "I know he wants to go out with a win against us as a senior, because it's something he hasn't done yet."
It's one of the few things Rivers hasn't done in his prolific career, which includes throwing for 3,740 yards and 29 touchdowns this season. With 12,733 passing yards in his career, Rivers ranks third in NCAA history. He's the first quarterback in the 51-year history of the Atlantic Coast Conference to throw for more than 3,000 yards in three consecutive seasons, and this year he's completing 72.3 percent of his passes.
"[Defensive coordinator] Gary Blackney was saying that Rivers might be the best college quarterback he's ever seen," said Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen.
Rivers, who has been a top contender for the Heisman Trophy much of the season, has done it all with one of the more unusual releases in college football. He doesn't throw passes as much as he flings them, dropping the ball down near his waist before he brings it up again and fires it downfield. His throwing motion scared off some schools during his high school career in Athens, Ala., but Amato was more than happy to grab him.
"I know he doesn't have the perfect form, but he has the perfect results," Friedgen said.
"It's hard to see the ball because he brings it from so low," said Terps cornerback Domonique Foxworth. "It makes it a little bit tougher on us because you can't see him release it until the last second. He gets it off really quick, too."
Though Rivers has been the focus this week, there is plenty at stake for the two teams. Maryland needs a win to hang on to second place in the ACC, and to impress the Gator Bowl (Jan. 1), which will have representatives in attendance today.
Last season, the Terps and Wolfpack finished tied with Virginia for second place in the league, but the Gator Bowl decided to go with N.C. State, leaving Maryland to the Peach Bowl.
If Maryland loses today, it could easily finish in a four-way tie with N.C. State, Clemson and Georgia Tech for second in the ACC. In that scenario, Maryland could end up in the Continental Tire Bowl (Dec. 27) or the Tangerine Bowl (Dec. 22), which would force the Terps to reschedule finals and some commencement ceremonies.
"Just for my sanity, it would be better to play on New Year's Day [or later]," Friedgen said. "We've spent 14 weeks trying to get these kids academically ready. It would be tough to ask them to play a bowl game right in the middle [of studying for finals]."
Two players will play a key role today. For the Wolfpack, it's sophomore running back T.A. McLendon, who left last week's 50-44 loss to Florida State in double overtime with a shoulder injury.
McLendon, like Terps tailback Bruce Perry, has never been fully healthy this year, missing four full games with various injuries. But when he has played, he's been impressive. Against Virginia, McLendon had 112 rushing yards and 104 yards receiving in a 51-37 win.
For Maryland, that player is Scott McBrien. After a shaky start, Maryland's quarterback seems to have found his groove the past two games, throwing for 541 yards and five touchdowns, completing 63 percent of his throws. Maryland's defense, despite being ranked first in the ACC in passing yards allowed, will likely give up some points today, meaning McBrien will need to answer.
"It's going to take points to win this game, I'll tell you that," Friedgen said. "That's not a slight on our defense. This is a very good team we're playing. But it's important that our offense comes to play. If we don't, I think we'll be in trouble."
Matchup:Maryland (7-3, 4-2) vs. N.C. State (7-4, 4-3)
Site:Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh, N.C.
TV/Radio:Chs. 2, 7/WBAL (1090 AM)
Line:N.C. State by 1