With one monumental win, Maryland football is back

October 29, 2006|By RICK MAESE

COLLEGE PARK -- Dressed in black, Terps fans waited for time to expire, then stormed the field en masse. They ran and jumped and swirled about and, for at least few moments, all of the mediocrity that had infected this football program over the past couple of seasons suddenly seemed lost in the giant black hole at midfield, swallowed entirely by a single win.

Could it be possible? Could one win on a frigid October night - a win over an aimless Florida State team - really carry that much meaning?

Sure feels like it.

If last night's 27-24 victory over the Seminoles is any indication, despite having just one respectable win this season, Maryland football is back. Well, somewhat.

With a month still remaining, you hate to say so much hinged on this game - but it did.

By beating the Seminoles, the Terps, for the first time since 2003, will not finish the season with a losing record. By beating the Seminoles, Maryland is bowl-eligible and should expect to play football in December. And by beating the Seminoles, coach Ralph Friedgen can loosen his collar a bit, as the heat cools and his detractors disappear into their caves for at least a week or two.

Put simply, last night's win means that at season's end, there's a good chance we'll all be saying that Maryland football has returned to stable ground.

Expert analysts across the nation seem eager to label the Seminoles' 2006 season the Bobby Bowden Farewell Tour, but that'll be just a footnote in the Terps' record books. It doesn't really matter that last night's win came against a downtrodden Florida State team. The fact remains that it came against a Florida State team, just the second time in 17 meetings that the Terps have topped the 'Noles.

"People have been doubting us, but we're fighting back," Terps cornerback Josh Wilson said.

As Maryland prepares to play at Clemson on Saturday - its toughest foe remaining in a pretty intimidating final four weeks - the fight facing the Terps will take place on two fronts. In telephone calls and in meeting rooms, athletic department officials will try to convince bowl committee members that last night's win was no fluke. And on the field, players will try to prove it.

In essence, the Terps will try to cut-and-paste the good from last night's performance into the next four Saturdays: zero turnovers, three touchdown passes, 3-for-3 in the red zone. As important as last night's win was, they should expect to face more scrutiny in their remaining games.

"We've just got to continue to improve. We're not there yet," Friedgen said. "We're bowl-eligible, but our goals are bigger than six wins."

Most of the country has been dealing with lawn signs, political commercials and televised debates for weeks. But campaign season for the Terps didn't really begin until last night, as they turn their attention to positioning Maryland football for the best bowl game possible.

Bowl committees use a variety of criteria - and not many seem to favor Maryland. When committee members scan eligible teams, they examine whether a school's fans travel, whether a team has intriguing story lines and whether an offense can score points.

That means that over the final four games of the season, the Terps will try their best to woo bowl committee members with both their play and with some elbow-rubbing away from the stadium.

Bowl representatives showed up to watch the Terps' win over North Carolina State on Oct. 21, and they were back on campus Friday, meeting with athletic department officials and listening to the Terps' sales pitch. Officials representing the Gator Bowl, the Meineke Car Care Bowl and the Champs Sports Bowl watched yesterday's win from the press box, chatting with Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow and senior associate athletic director Chris Boyer.

Despite last night's win, the Terps' track record still leans on the mediocre side, something they'll have a tough time correcting in the coming weeks.

After this weekend's games, the combined record of the Terps' 12 opponents this year is 57-40. But the combined record of the teams they've managed to beat is only 18-31. It won't be easy improving those numbers. Three of Maryland's final four opponents were ranked in last week's Top 25 - No. 10 Clemson, No. 18 Boston College and No. 24 Wake Forest. The other foe is Miami, a team the Terps haven't played since 1987 and haven't beaten since 1984.

Barring a series of surprises in the remaining conference schedule, the Terps should receive one of the conference's eight bowl invitations.

Friedgen knows there's still work ahead. "That sixth win is a big monkey on your back," he said, "but it doesn't get any easier from here."

Yes, plenty of uncertainties remain. Can quarterback Sam Hollenbach keep it together? Can they play four solid quarters in row? Can they win without more offensive production? - but the biggest nagging questions surrounding the team changed last night.

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