Last Saturday, the despondent members of the Maryland football team’s senior class answered reflective questions as if they sat in an exit interview.
What is your fondest memory? What will you miss the most? What does the program’s future hold?
True, the Terrapins had just played their final game at Byrd Stadium, a 41-14 blowout loss to Florida State. But as players from the 17-member class contemplated big wins of years past, the cameras and microphones seemed to forget the obvious: Maryland still had one game left, against North Carolina.
“Obviously it was the last game in Byrd, but we’ve still got an opportunity to leave on a high note, and we look forward to doing so,” senior offensive lineman Bennett Fulper said. “Just going down here, getting a win.”
The 10th-ranked Seminoles pulled the plug on a goal — bowl eligibility — that once seemed quite attainable. The Terps began the season 4-2, narrowly losing by three points to Connecticut and performing well in a 10-point defeat at West Virginia, which at the time was ranked eighth in the country.
Then the slide began. Mere inches separated kicker Brad Craddock from glory against North Carolina State on Oct. 20, when his game-winning field goal attempt clanged off the left upright. That came two quarters after quarterback Perry Hills writhed on the turf with a season-ending ACL tear, and hours before backup quarterback Devin Burns learned he had suffered a Lisfranc injury in his foot. Already reeling from injuries, Maryland fell at Boston College the next weekend. Fourth-string quarterback Caleb Rowe also tore his ACL, and scout-team linebackerShawn Petty became the starting signal-caller.
The Terps barely stood a chance in a brutal November, losing to Georgia Tech, Clemson and Florida State by a combined 82 points. The dream of playing in a bowl went from probable to unlikely to impossible.
“I feel for the kids, but I know these guys will go out there, play as hard as you can,” Coach Randy Edsall said Tuesday. “You’re lining up to play the game. Granted, the goals and the aspirations that we had coming into the season, we didn’t meet, but they still know that, as a competitor, every time you put that uniform on, you’ll go out and give it your all. That’s the kind of kids we have here, that’s the expectation anytime we play.”
In North Carolina, Maryland faces a foe that also won’t go bowling this year. But the Tar Heels (7-4, 4-3 ACC) are held back only by a self-imposed bowl ban. Led by junior quarterback Bryn Renner, a former first-team All-Met at West Springfield, North Carolina has scored at least 43 points in five games, boasting the ACC’s third-ranked scoring offense and second-ranked scoring defense.
The Terps, meanwhile, have dug themselves deeper holes with early turnovers in recent weeks, and for the second straight week rank last in total offense in the Football Bowl Subdivision. As resilient as Petty has been, he’s still suffered from the turnover-prone tendencies of a true freshman, losing four fumbles over the past two games.
Maryland’s challenge grows even greater Saturday, when the Terps (4-7, 2-5) could be without two of their top defensive playmakers. Linebacker Darin Drakeford will miss the game with a head injury and defensive lineman Joe Vellano is doubtful, having played on a sprained ankle since the Georgia Tech game on Nov. 3. Should Drakeford and Vellano, who are tied for the team lead with six sacks apiece, each be sidelined, Maryland will be without three of its four captains
“It hasn’t happened too much in history, but at the same time it’s a possibility,” said wide receiver Kevin Dorsey, the Terps’ lone healthy captain. “Unfortunately it happened to us this year. But through all the ups and downs, I recently sat on the field, I forget what practice it was, but I was laying in the ground, looked up at the sky and thanked God for the opportunity. Just being able to play the game, it means more than anything else.”
All week, Dorsey has told his teammates to find one aspect they’ve struggled with all season and “make this the staple game where you fix it.” For Dorsey, who had two catches for 75 yards and two touchdowns against Florida State, this means fine-tuning routes and increasing consistency. For others, like Petty, it’s eliminating self-imposed mistakes.
Even with a bowl game out of Maryland’s reach, Dorsey still hasn’t seen a lackluster attitude around the team. During a recent practice, he and freshman Stefon Diggs were both running go routes. Dorsey smiled to Diggs, Maryland’s electric wide receiver and top candidate for ACC freshman of the year honors, and said, “Want to race?”
The tendency to wonder “what if” may be great for these Terps. Stemming back to the preseason ACL tear suffered by C.J. Brown, the expected starter at quarterback, Maryland has been a lesson in absurdity. Had 11 players not suffered season-ending injuries, then maybe the Terps would be playing for something greater than pride against North Carolina. But that’s not reality.
“You think about it, but every time it always comes down to the same answer,” Dorsey said. “That’s life and that’s the game of football.”