"I'll second-guess myself a thousand times," Jerry Claiborne was saying after the tie Maryland counted as a loss yesterday. That will be 999 times more than most Terrapin fans, who have just one gargantuan question on their minds: are there 11 students anywhere on campus capable of playing pass defense?
Scour the libraries and the beer halls. Somewhere out of 28,172 undergraduates there must be somebody, or some bodies, large enough and nasty enough to corral a quarterback and agile enough to stay in the same zip code with opposition receivers.
The thread so far to what might be Jerry Claiborne's first losing season at Maryland is that two of the three quarterbacks who have seemed the reincarnation of Johnny Unitas against the Terrapins are more likely to be drafted by the army than the NFL.
Only Claiborne and their kin will remember the names of the Vanderbilt and Syracuse passers a few years from now; Claiborne may never forget that they each threw for at least 250 yards, and that the gifted Oliver Luck of West Virginia stung his turtles for 255.
This has been a Rubic's cube sort of dilemma for Claiborne. If he emphasizes a pass rush, the coverage is weak; if he gets the secondary straight, all lined up properly, the defensive line couldn't hurry Nancy Reagan in the pocket.
"Gotta give (Dave) Warner credit," said Claiborne of the Syracuse quarterback who directed 90- and 71-yard touchdown drives in the fourth period. Then he tried not to.
"We blitzed and defended" he said. "We tried it all."
oo much, perhaps.
Trying to be helpful rather than critical, linebacker Mike Muller said: "Seems like our nickel (extra-back) defense hasn't worked at all year Every time we put it in they get a big play."
The hundreds of customers who began fleeing Byrd Stadium midway through the fourth quarter apparently have not been paying attention this season. Once a two-touchdown Maryland lead with less than 10 minutes left was as close as anything to football certainty. Claiborne's teams might put you to sleep in the fourth quarter, but never could anyone recall them blowing a 14-point lead anytime in any loss during his 10 years here.
None of Maryland's guesses worked on those final Syracuse drives.
"He (Warner) even hit the guy we had the extra back on (for the first down on fourth and 14 from the Maryland 35 with 39 seconds left)."
Quietly, Claiborne elaborated: "We couldn't get to him with four people, so we blitzed. And he got it off quickly, or somebody caught the ball on his shoetops, I watched that guy (Willie Sydnor) catch one shoe-high once. We played zone deep and man-to-man underneath, tried to be a tight as possible to take away the short passing game.
"But we couldn't."
And couldn't get anyone within 10 yards of tight end Marty Chalk on the tying two-point conversion.
Claiborne poured out mor embarassment:
"We've given up leads three times in the fourth quarter (in losses to Vanderbilt and West Virginia and yesterday's 17-17 tie). We've always prided ourselves in being a fourth-quarter team. We'd get them in long-yardage situations (such as third and nine just before the first touchdown pass and that fourth and 14). But we couldn't take advantage of it."
Warner must have taken some accuracy pills before the fourth quarter, because his first 45 minutes were erratic.
"He was missing outs," Claiborne said, referring to the short sideline passes that are supposed to be the safest and easiest to complete. Warner was wonderful with the game on the line, as was the nimble Sydnor, whom Claiborne tried hard to recruit.
For one of the few times in his football life, Claiborne might spank himself for being bold, for throwing a pass on third and less thanone at the Syracuse 38 late in the third quarter. It was a pass-rn option for Boomer Esiason, who chose the former and had it intercepeted.
Ironically, although the defense ultimately broke, an offensive player, Mike Lewis, was the one who mirrored Maryland's game. Like the team, Lewis was very good more than he was very bad, with one touchdown catch and another of a pass tipped at least three times for the two-point conversion without which the Terrapins would have lost.
Lewis also returned seven punts for 69 yards and two kickoffs for 52. But he muffed the first punt that came his way, lost another that Syracuse recovered and converted into a second-quarter field goal and fair-caught a punt on the Maryland 10 with no tackler close to him.
"No matter what," he said, acting mature, "it could have been worse. I'm not happy, but I'm not ready to moan."
His touchdown catch was "scary" because it was so easy; the one for the conversion was major league, in traffic and after the ball bounced off hand after hand. As his hand was at face level on that ill-advised fair catch, Lewis snatched it back down, grabbed the ball and ran. The officials ruled he already had declared his intentions.
After such a bittersweet afternoon, individually and for the team, what will his most vivid memory be?
"That first punt (he muffed and then fell on at the Maryland 25). If hadn't dropped it, I'd have been in the end zone with six. The (return) wall was so nice. All I had to do was catch the ball and follow the blocks. But the wind took it away from me. The wind shifted, and I had to reach for it instead of cradle it."