By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 28, 2008
The glass is always half full in the eyes of Dean Muhtadi, the Maryland defensive lineman who, even in days following disheartening losses, will bound up the stairs of the Gossett Team House with a wide smile, positive attitude and firm handshake.
But optimism has its limits. Three weeks ago, when Muhtadi heard that Maryland and Nevada had sold a combined 24 tickets for their matchup in Tuesday's Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, Idaho, the senior could only laugh and respond, "I hate to say it, but you have to expect that. I can't say I'm surprised."
While Muhtadi insisted he is excited about the game, as a general football fan he acknowledged there is little national appeal for a Tuesday afternoon matchup between the second-place team in the Western Athletic Conference and an ACC team that has lost three of its last four games. And for that reason, it remains to be seen whether a Maryland team that struggled with motivation all season will be energized to play in a game it never wanted to be in.
"Yes, I am concerned," Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen said. "I just wish I knew."
Tuesday's matchup should not be compared to the 2004 Silicon Valley Classic, a game between Northern Illinois and Troy that drew 5,000 fans who watched in dim lighting because an electrical transformer outside Spartan Stadium malfunctioned before kickoff. Nor should it be compared to the Dec. 20 New Mexico Bowl, which featured a Colorado State-Fresno State matchup that lacked a power conference team or a school with local ties.
But this season's Humanitarian Bowl remains one of the year's least enthralling matchups.
A contest that features Nevada's prolific offense and a Maryland team that has beaten four ranked opponents has done little to stir national interest.
Maryland officials have said the Boise television report on ticket sales that Muhtadi referenced was incorrect. They said the school has sold about 800 tickets, a figure they're pleased with considering the current economy and the fact that Georgia Tech sold just 250 for the same game last season.
What's more, the Humanitarian Bowl officials appeared to settle for this matchup because neither Nevada nor Maryland was the bowl's first choice.
Maryland players hoped to play in a more prominent bowl game in a warm-weather climate. They were two wins away from a division title and a chance to play in the Orange Bowl, but losses to Florida State and Boston College dropped Maryland into a batch of 10 bowl eligible ACC teams.
"It is disappointing," Maryland wide receiver Danny Oquendo said, "judging where we were with three weeks left" in the regular season.
For some, the most frustrating aspect was that Clemson, which Maryland beat, will play in the Gator Bowl, which has the third pick among ACC teams, while the Terrapins fell to the Humanitarian Bowl, which has the eighth pick. The Tigers' fans historically travel in large numbers to bowl games.
"Everyone knows the bowl shuffling wasn't fair," Maryland quarterback Chris Turner said. "We don't look at ourselves as the eighth-best team. We're going to this bowl. We don't have a choice. We have to go there. We're playing a good team. We can get eight wins."
As Muhtadi put it, "We got the shaft with the eighth-place bowl."
Muhtadi said there was a lot of negativity around the team when its bowl prospects became clear.
He said many seniors, including himself, had nightmares, in which they would replay sequences in the Florida State or Boston College games. Muhtadi even dreamed he was playing in the Orange Bowl, only to wake up to a much different reality.
"To fall all the way down to the eighth-place bowl, a lot of guys were like, 'Might as well pack it in, the season is done,' " Muhtadi said. "A lot of guys feel that it's not just about winning a bowl game, but what bowl game you go to that defines your season."
When Maryland learned it was Boise-bound, Friedgen wanted to know where his players' minds were, so he gathered them in the team auditorium and conducted a poll: Who wants to stay home? Those who didn't want to go didn't have to. No one raised his hand.
"When you're a kid, you say, 'I want to go here, I want to go there,' " Maryland center Edwin Williams said. "No one says he wants to go to Boise . . . You have to sleep in the bed you made and deal with the consequences."
Kevin Lempa, Maryland's secondary coach, recently addressed the team and praised the ambience in Boise, Idaho, after his experience in the Humanitarian Bowl with Boston College in 2005. By the end of the trip, Lempa told Maryland players, the Eagles said it was the best bowl they had been to because the people were so gracious and the hospitality was so good.
In recent weeks, Friedgen has half-jokingly talked about fans being able to sleigh ride, snowboard and ski in the days leading up to the game. That might be the case, but it remains to be seen whether the football game itself will also be viewed as entertaining by television viewers and fans in attendance, much less by its participants.
"I would hope no one would watch the game just because it's on a blue field," Muhtadi said. "We're excited about playing, and I could care less what the national appeal is or how many people are in the stands. I don't care if no one is there."