COLLEGE PARK — Clearly, it was gut-check time for Maryland on Saturday. The Terps' self-esteem had been badly bruised in last weekend's blowout loss at Florida State, and starting quarterback C.J. Brown had been ruled out against Virginia because of a concussion he suffered against the Seminoles.
So there were only a couple of ways this thing could go.
The Terps could shake off that 63-point flogging and regain their footing against a Cavaliers team that had lost three of its previous four games and had given up 48 points to Ball State. Or they could suck the wind out of a promising start to 2013 by compounding the indignity of last week's ugly defeat and leaving their fans to wonder whether this supposed turnaround season was suddenly turning in the wrong direction.
When it was over, the only thing that mattered was the 27-26 final score, which favored the Terps (5-1) and put them within one win of bowl eligibility at their season's halfway point. That certainly is turnaround enough for a team that last year needed its own MASH unit.
"After last week, we were definitely humbled a little bit — brought back down to reality,'' senior tight end Dave Stinebaugh (Perry Hall) said. "This win just shows what our team is about. Coming back from what we faced the week before, and being able to pull off a win like we did tonight, shows a lot about our team. … We all came together, and when you pull out these tough ones, it means a lot."
Funny how things work out sometimes. The game came down to a missed field goal by Virginia's second-string placekicker, and it sailed wide right with 10 seconds left on the clock. Alec Vozenilek had made four others to put the Cavaliers in position to win the game on their final drive. The fact that he missed the last one determined, at least from a standpoint of team psychology, who played well and who didn't.
"That'll make you feel a few years older,'' coach Randy Edsall said, "but I'll take it."
Of course he will. How many times over the past couple of years have the Terps been on the other side of a game like that? They needed a bounce-back effort and they got it, even if they needed a little good fortune when the outcome was no longer in their control.
Maybe they would have been the same team if that kick had split the uprights. Maybe they would have come back and won next week at Wake Forest and eventually got that sixth win to make them eligible for their first bowl game of the Edsall era.
Backup quarterback Caleb Rowe threw for 332 yards Saturday, and Brown probably will be ready to come back next week. Now the Terps have two guys who have shown they can win at this level. Last year, they had four quarterbacks sidelined with injuries.
And yet, even Edsall will tell you he did not know how his guys would respond after they were embarrassed last week in Tallahassee, Fla.
"I'll tell you the truth,'' Edsall said. "I was nervous coming into this game, because I wasn't sure. I saw things at practice this week, but with where we were and all the things that transpired going into the Florida State game, and what happened in the Florida State game, I wasn't sure coming into today. I thought our guys would respond and really do a good thing, but we're young. We're real young. So I was very pleased."
It didn't start out well. Will Likely muffed Virginia's first punt, and the quick change of possession led to a Virginia field goal. The Cavaliers drove 79 yards on their next possession and settled for a second field goal after Maryland twice stopped them at the 1-yard line. Edsall looked back on that as a major turning point, because the Terps struck quickly at the end of the first quarter to take the lead.
"I was concerned that if something didn't happen good for us early on, how would our guys respond?'' he said. "Fortunately, it did happen that we stopped them when we could have gone down 10-0, and we only went down 6-0, and we got the touchdown and went ahead. Then I knew that we were going to be in pretty good shape."
The game was a back-and-forth slog in a steady drizzle. The Terps could just as easily have lost as won. But the important thing was that they shook off a major setback and kept moving in the right direction.
"Our guys kept battling,'' Edsall said. "I thought they would battle, but I was very, very concerned coming into the game because of what took place a week ago, even though we kept talking about, 'That was over, that was over.' But until you go back out and play again, I don't think you ever know what will happen, but I think that shows what kind of kids we have."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog, and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.