By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 7, 2010; 12:14 AM
BALTIMORE - Of the 121 plays in Monday's game between Navy and Maryland, four snaps that Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs took - each with Maryland's goal line in sight - decided the outcome of an atypical season-opening game.
Three times Dobbs fumbled the ball. And the final time, a decisive fourth-and-goal play inside the Maryland 1 with 37 seconds remaining, Dobbs barreled forward but collided with safety Kenny Tate and fell 12 inches short of the end zone.
The Terrapins, whose coach said his 2009 team was cursed by chronic bad luck, were nothing if not fortunate on a near-cloudless Monday, winning 17-14, perhaps in spite of themselves.
The Midshipmen, who had designs on going undefeated, amassed 485 total yards. They controlled the ball for nearly two-thirds of the game. And they converted 10 of 18 third-down chances. But Dobbs, a dynamic player who scored 27 rushing touchdowns last season, failed to come through time and again just feet from the goal line, no play bigger than the one in the final minute.
"I can't tell you how many of those plays I got," Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen said, choosing his words carefully, "how many didn't go my way [through the years]. I'll put it that way."
Afterward, Friedgen told his team that it would have lost a similar game last season. This year, after spending the offseason focusing on finishing strong, the Terrapins survived in what they hope will be a tone-setting victory to what many believe is a make-or-break season for Friedgen.
Before Friedgen entered his postgame news conference, he met Kevin Anderson, Maryland's new athletic director, for the first time. Anderson, who had been Army's athletic director since 2004, had not worked for a school that had beaten Navy, so he was pleased. So were Friedgen and his players, despite the ups and downs of an uneven performance.
"All those doubts about this team finishing, I think we erased those doubts today," center Paul Pinegar said. "It's definitely a relief. Getting this first win was something we had been looking forward to since January, when we reported for winter workouts."
Maryland relied almost exclusively on its rushing attack, collecting 261 yards on the ground. Starting quarterback Jamarr Robinson completed just 2 of 5 passes for 11 yards and he threw one interception.
For one series in the third quarter, Friedgen replaced Robinson with redshirt freshman Danny O'Brien. That drive was short-lived, concluding with a fumble on a handoff exchange with running back Davin Meggett. Robinson finished the game and is expected to start Saturday against Morgan State.
"We're going to play both quarterbacks," Friedgen said. "It's nothing against Jamarr."
The Navy fans who sat among the 69,348 at M&T Bank Stadium had far more reason to be frustrated with the offense. Navy squandered opportunities to score at least 27 more points in the game.
"I can't remember a time where we rushed for 400 yards and lost a ballgame," Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "We should have had 31 points."
Dobbs, who had been called by some a preseason dark horse Heisman Trophy hopeful, fumbled four times - including three inside the Maryland 1 or 2 - and looked pedestrian throughout. Last year, Navy failed to score while inside the red zone 10 times. On Monday, the Midshipmen failed to score five times inside the red zone.
There was Joe Buckley's 32-yard field goal that caromed off the left upright. There was Dobbs losing a fumble when linebacker Adrian Moten jumped over the line of scrimmage and knocked the ball loose on third and goal from the Maryland 1. And there was Dobbs fumbling the ball just shy of the end zone - choosing not to throw the ball away - and letting the first half elapse without the Midshipmen at least kicking a field goal.
If that weren't enough, on the first drive of the third quarter, Navy milked nearly six minutes off the clock and looked like it was about to score a touchdown when Dobbs charged toward the end zone. But Tate knocked the ball loose with his helmet before Dobbs crossed the goal line, and linebacker Ryan Donohue recovered.
Maryland place kicker Travis Baltz, starting in place of the injured Nick Ferrara, gave his team a 17-14 lead by kicking a 24-yard field goal with just less than eight minutes remaining. On the ensuring drive, the Terrapins stopped Navy on third down, but defensive lineman Drew Gloster was called for a face mask, giving the Midshipmen an automatic first down.
After botching chance after chance in the red zone, Navy had one final opportunity to take the lead in the final minute. Tate collided with Dobbs, stopping him from reaching the goal line and sending the Terrapins into celebration mode. In more than 30 years of coaching, Maryland defensive coordinator Don Brown said he can never remember a defense that he coached playing better inside the red zone.
"We were the underdogs in this game, and coming off last season - I hate to bring it up still - but it was a great stepping stone," Robinson said. "We're 1-0. It was a great stepping stone in building our confidence."
This was about winning the Crab Bowl Trophy for this year's team. But this was also about Friedgen seeing his team maturing in front of his eyes.
"It is kind of like being a parent and watching your kids grow up," Friedgen said. "They make mistakes and you hang with them."