Take three or four quick stingers, follow with assorted boilermakers and straight whiskey, in large gulps, and you have a fine notion of the New Year's hangover Maryland had late today.

It came not from a bottle but failing to bottle up some Houston Cougars, specifically a quarter-back with quick feet and quick wits named Danny Davis just when a Cotton Bowl game Maryland seemed to have blown suddenly seemed possible to win.

From a 21-0 deficit, Maryland had battled back to within six points with five minutes left in the game, and had Davis seemingly trapped near his own goal line on third down. No way even Houdini could escape the rush of John Douglas, Brad Carr, Joe Campbell and Ernie Salley.

Then . . .

"Somebodyd cut me," said Douglas. "Just as I grabbed his jersey, somebody hit my legs and he tore away and I hit the ground. I was straight up when I was coming at him, and suddenly as I grab him I'm going down."

"Maybe we just knocked each other off him," said Carr.

"I had an arm on him," said Salley. "I thought we had a sack for sure."

"I'm on the sideline feeling very confident," said Maryland quarterback Mark Manges, "because we've got the momentum going to put the winning touchdown in there when they have to kick."

But wait. Somehow, Davis stayed on his feet, his arm rose out of the clutter of bodies and he threw a pass so wobbly it appeared to be turning end over end. But it got to Robert Laveregne 13 yards upfield, and suddenly the Cotton Bowl had seen one the best plays in its 41-year history and Houston had crashed the collegiate elite for good.

Later, Lavergne admitted what Maryland cornerback Kenny Roy kept insisting, that he stepped out of bounds and then came back in before catching the pass. That would have nullified the completion.

"I've got to say I think I did," Lavergne said. "But the official was there - and he didn't call anything."

Whatever outrage the Terrapins may feel, if in fact what Lavergne admitted is substantiated by film, ought to be tempered by the fact that their inability to capitalize on an earlier miscarriage of justice helped seal their fate.

On the first series of the game, Davis was back to pass on second down from his 38-yard line and dropped the ball when hit by Chip Garbar, and Maryland's Miller recovered.

Nearly every impartial eye in the house, and especially the one CBS uses to show replays, though Davis had brought the bail forward enough for the play to be ruled an incomplete pass rather than a fumble. But the officials ruled otherwise and Maryland had a fine chance to gain a telling advantage.

But its drive was stymied at the 12, Ed Loncar missed a 27-yard field goal and that was an omen of what was to happen for the rest of the game. Maryland allowed the swift Cougars too much open space at the line of scrimmage, kicked dreadfully and could not pull off the big plays after regaining its pose at halftime.

That the Terrapins fell behind so far and so quickly was a combination of many factors, including the schedule wizards that failed to give the players big-game experience against teams that regularly trot off to major bowls.

"We weren't taking who we were supposed to early," said defensive tackle coach Gib Romaine of the reasons that such Cougars as Alois Blackwell and Davis ran so far during Houston's first-quarter blitz.

It was so ominous for the Terrapins after Houston took a 21-0 lead with 51 seconds left in the first quarter that the resident Southwest Conference wit. Jones Ramsey, said, "You can open the bar now."

Well, not quite. To its credit, Maryland refused to fold. In truth, the Terrapins returned so dramatically that they could reduce the game to a series of "ifs" rather than hide their heads in embarrasment.

They were kicking themselves for their awful kicking game early, although that phase had been shaky the entire season.

They were angry at themselves for allowing Houston so much yardage on the first veer option - a quick-hitter straight into the line. When that works, it sets up all manner of fine plays.

Ultimately, they were frustrated at failing to convince the critics that they deserved to be included among the top two or three terms in the country, that this was a fine team hampered by a lackluster schedule rather than a suspect one dominating a weak league.

For a generation, Maryland has had its nose pressed against the window, trying ever so hard to be invited inside and keep company with the collegiate powers. Finally, after four majors steps in four years, Maryland seemed ready to crash in.

"What more do you want?" they could have said by beating Houston, itself an upstart with national championship ambitions. There was too little, too late, however, and a play that will linger in Terrapin minds for years made a 12-0 possibility an 11-1 reality.