UM says bye to mediocrity, says hello to Gator Bowl

November 23, 2003|By MIKE PRESTON

RALEIGH, N.C. -- The Maryland football team bid farewell to mediocrity last night, and said hello to the Gator Bowl.

The Terps (8-3) were able to overcome problems that have hindered them all season, such as lack of offensive consistency, playmakers and leadership in a thrilling 26-24 come-from-behind win over N.C. State (7-5). All season, Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen had questioned his ability to reach his team's soul, but last night he found answers, and the Terps found a new identity.

"Coach Friedgen has talked to us about becoming a team," said cornerback Curome Cox. He said he saw parts of it against North Carolina and parts of it against Virginia. Tonight, we put it all together. We've never been a team that points fingers, we've always been willing to pull for each other and fight for each other, and that was the difference tonight."

Not only did the Terps come from behind after trailing 24-10 with 8:45 remaining, but they also ruined the farewell of N.C. State quarterback Philip Rivers, whose No. 17 jersey was retired before the game, and sealed the Gator Bowl berth for Maryland over the Wolfpack.

Everyone knew what the Gator Bowl representatives had planned. They wanted to bill the 2004 Gator Bowl as Rivers' farewell. But hold the tickets. Maryland ruined the celebration and launched one of its own as it exchanged taunts and insults with N.C. State players near the Wolfpack sideline as the game ended.

Some of the Terps danced on the N.C. State name painted in the end zone, which drew a lot of foreign objects from some of the 53,800 fans in attendance at Carter-Finley Stadium.

This game has the makings for a great college rivalry. But that's down the road. Maybe the most important part of last night was that the Terps found themselves.

It turned out to be their coming-out party. A team that lacked go-to receivers had three contribute last night. They had a quarterback in Scott McBrien who lived up to preseason expectations and a kicker who was the comeback player of the game. After missing an extra-point attempt with 2:29 left that could have tied the game, Nick Novak converted on a 43-yard field goal with 23 seconds remaining to win the game.

The crunch award?

It has to go to Maryland's Leroy Ambush (what a great name for a linebacker). The Wolfpack was trying to run out the clock by handing off to running back T.A. McLendon at its own 38 with about two minutes remaining. But as soon as McLendon came off left tackle, Ambush, well, ambushed him. He nailed McLendon under the chin with the greatest shot since Frazier knocked down Ali in their first fight in 1971.

Maryland's Madieu Williams recovered McLendon's fumble with 1:50 left, setting up Novak's heroics.

"I just knew we had to get the ball back any way possible," said Ambush. "I figured they would try to run the ball to try to run out the clock. I don't even think T.A. McLendon saw me."

Maryland desperately needed this win. As far as the Terps were concerned, they were underachievers this season, and they were right. In preseason, they wanted a BCS Bowl, but reality had them looking at the Gator, Peach, Tangerine and Tire Bowls.

This was a letdown for a program that had shown great improvement in Friedgen's first two seasons. The Terps were expected to start winning some of those "toss-up games", but couldn't beat Northern Illinois in the season opener, and couldn't muster any offense in a loss to Georgia Tech. But the Terps' problems weren't just on the field.

In the locker room, they needed a leader, someone as outspoken and as charismatic as linebacker E.J. Henderson, whose eligibility expired last season. Both McBrien and safety Williams, both seniors, were candidates, but both have introverted personalities. Linebackers D'Qwell Jackson and Shawne Merriman have respect, but both are sophomores.

Maryland had no one who could carry it through rough times, and the Terps had plenty this season with injuries to running back Bruce Perry and offensive linemen C.J. Brooks, Lamar Bryant and Eric Dumas.

So concerned was Friedgen, that he started attending offensive line meetings and head-butted players before the North Carolina game.

"We're probably more together right now than we've been any time this year," said Friedgen. "They could have quit tonight, but they didn't. They showed me a lot."

Particularly McBrien. Friedgen and offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe rave about the way McBrien performs in practice, but he doesn't play that way in games. Last night, though, McBrien was effective as a passer in the last two drives, and as a runner, finishing a six-play, 78-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown run around left end with 2:29 remaining.

Novak, though, missed the extra-point attempt. Fortunately, Ambush bailed him out with the hit on McLendon, giving him an opportunity to hit the game-winner.

As soon as the ball sailed through the uprights, Novak sprinted toward midfield before sliding on both knees while looking up to the sky. Within seconds, teammates toppled him. Soon, the celebration began.

Not only is Maryland headed to the Gator Bowl, but the Terps also finally found themselves on this warm and weird night in North Carolina.

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