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8 Upper

Out of Their Shell

By Tom Scocca | Posted 11/24/1999

What happened to the University of Maryland football team Nov. 20 was undeniably miserable. Up 30-27 against Virginia, with a shot at a bowl game on the line, the Terrapins pulled one of the ugliest collapses College Park has seen since Lefty Dreisell stopped coaching the men's basketball team. With less than two minutes remaining in the game, the Terps stopped Virginia on a fourth-down pass and got the ball back. All they had to do was keep the ball in bounds, pick up a first down, and run out the clock.

It didn't happen. On the first play, tailback LaMont Jordan, rounding the corner toward a wide-open running lane, tripped and fell. Two plays later, quarterback Randall Jones ran out of bounds by mistake, stopping the clock. The Cavaliers got the ball back with a full 1:12 to go, and quarterback Dan Ellis led them on a quick, surgical drive capped by a spectacular over-the-shoulder connection to Billy McMullen on the left edge of the end zone. Virginia 34, Maryland 30.

As things went in the game, so they went in the season. After five games, the Terps were 4-1. After seven, they were 5-2, needing just one more victory to secure a winning season and to become eligible for a bowl game. But that win never came. A narrow homecoming loss to Duke, thrashings by North Carolina State and Florida State, and Maryland was suddenly 5-5, with the whole season riding on the Virginia game.

And they lost. They failed. There were tears on the sideline and grim quotes in the next day's papers. "[T]he worst loss I've ever been associated with," coach Ron Vanderlinden called it.

But the Terrapins and their fans shouldn't take it quite so hard. It's tough to keep perspective when you lose a big game on Rivalry Saturday—my own alma mater lost its big game on a late touchdown this year, and I'm pig-biting mad about it. For the Maryland football program, though, the fact that the game mattered at all should count for something.

Clichés about moral victory are tough to swallow when you've closed with a four-game losing streak. But when was that last time a late-season loss made any difference at all to the Terps? Their five wins match their combined total from the previous two seasons. They haven't won the Atlantic Coast Conference since 1985. They haven't been to a bowl game since 1990. In the past 14 years they've had two winning seasons—6-5 both times. They've been one of the most feeble, boring, pointless programs in all of Division I-A.

A 5-6 year may look like more of the same. It may be more of the same. Somehow, though, Vanderlinden's five-year plan for the program seems more convincing than the failed five-year plans of his predecessors, Joe Krivak and Mark Duffner. The difference emerged in the team's first loss of the season, a 49-31 defeat at Georgia Tech on Sept. 30. Tech was a much better team than Maryland and played like it, hitting the Terps with big plays and scoring touchdowns in flurries. But the Terps kept bouncing back. They fell behind 7-0, then 14-7, then 28-17, and rallied each time.

This was not the pinball offense of the Scott Milanovich era, either, when the Terps would go behind by four touchdowns then throw for 500 meaningless yards. This was a legitimate attack, poised and creative, finding multiple ways to strike back against a better foe. In the middle of it all was Jordan: rushing for two touchdowns, throwing a 60-yard option pass for a third, making a 38-yard catch on a broken play.

Byrd Stadium has not seen a player the likes of Jordan in a lot of listless years, if it ever has. The massive junior rushed for 1,632 yards this season and scored 17 touchdowns. He averaged more yards per carry than Wisconsin's Ron Dayne, the Heisman Trophy front-runner and new all-time Division I rushing leader. Against Virginia, he ran for a team-record 303 yards, including a 90-yard touchdown.

If it had been 313 yards, surely enough, the Terps would be going to a bowl game. But that's an unnecessarily bitter way of looking at the season. Maryland's real hopes of a six- or seven-win campaign were finished Nov. 6 against N.C. State, when starting quarterback Calvin McCall went down for the season with a torn knee ligament. By the time the Terps played Virginia, backup Latrez Harrison was out with an ankle sprain and they were down to Jones, who'd spent most of the season playing safety.

Yet the Terps, led by Jordan, played a fantastic football game; Ellis and Virginia just played better. When you're cheering for a team, it's easy to blame the success of the other team on your own failures. Terrible as Maryland's screwups were, all they did was give Virginia the ball; it was Virginia's skill that got the ball into the end zone.

Still, some of the glory shone back on the Terps. Three months ago, I couldn't have imagined gluing myself to the TV for the fourth quarter of a Maryland game. But there I was, cheering for a team I'd almost forgotten about. If Maryland fans want to worry about the various prizes of the college game, they should save it for next year. Then, the Terps can make a real push for a bowl game, and Jordan, if he stays in school, can go for the Heisman. As bad as the football program has been, just having those hopes should be triumph enough for this year.

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