Had the official near the other sideline used his fingers and toes, had he counted the Penn State players on the field and gotten to 12, as Bobby Ross figures he should have, the fuss that might turn into a feud never would have started.
The Maryland coach is convinced, beyond doubt, that there were too many lions prowling around that punt early in the fourth quarter. That's what he wanted, what he tried to create, by ordering the ball punted quickly. And when a State player seemed tardy leaving the field, Ross thought the ploy had worked, that the Terrapins surely would get a badly needed first down.
"I watched it, watched it specifically," Ross said," and I'm quite certain there were 12. Fact is, there almost were 13, but one guy got off in time."
This was an hour or so after State, as usual, had found a way to beat Maryland today, and Ross was in a historic -- if unusual -- setting: a shower. So cramped are the visitors' quarters here that State has carpeted a 10-nozzle rectangle for coaches to wash out their minds in public after games.
Bear Bryant used it after he tied Amos Alonzo Stagg's career coaching record last season, with victory No. 314; Ross used it today, after his first game as Maryland's coach. What he learned, or at least was told, made him as livid as he'd been after that tantrum cost Maryland 15 yards at a time when one was precious.
It's unsportsmanlike for a coach to walk across the sideline to protest a call. A day earlier, on the team bus winding through the mountains toward here, Ross had talked about controlling his emotions. Not in this sense exactly, but he had emphasized how everone -- coaches and players -- must stay disiciplined if Maryland was to beat State for the first time simce Kennedy Camelot in 1961.
There are easier ways for a coach to break into big-bucks ball than against State. But Ross had faced awful odds in his first game as head coach at The Citadel, in 1973, and mighty Georgia won by just two points. So maybe this new sophisticated passing game he has given the Terrapins and some State boredom might conspire .
Well, a fellow can dream.
"It would help a whole lot, of course," Ross had said of beating State. "But Bill Curry beat Alabama and that didn't make a whole lot of difference (Georgia Tech going 1-10 last season). I'd rather build long-range, create a foundation with a well thought-out philosophy of offense, defense and the kicking game."
So one career quides Ross more than one game or one season. And all of a sudden he's going dizzy over one play!
"I told him (the closest official) to drop a flag, that there were 12 men on the field," Ross said, "Instead he says: "your're on the field and that's 15 yards and a called timeout.: I got to the guy whose call it was supposed to be, but he said he wasn't watching for it.
"That bothered me. But to get the referee's attention by that time would have cost me another time out. But they're human. And I don't think it was that poorly called a game. I don't want to make a big deal about it."
Then he discovered who could have ignored the raving as combat craze but did not:
Father of Mike Guman, a prominent, versatile lion as recently as three seasons ago.
Later, Mike's dad also ruled Kenny Jackson held a pass in the end zone long enough for it to be a touchdown. Turtle eyes saw otherwise.
Ross saw the deepest shade of red when he learned of the Guman connection. What Ross wanted to say he held inside, volunterring instead: "I wish I hadda known it."
The contract for this game called for State to arrange for the officials.
Hereafter," Ross said, "we'll definitely have a split (crew)."
His athletic director, Dick Dull, seemed to agree.
"I don't think it was crucial to the game," Dull said. "Nevertheless, it impeaches the integrity of the game to have that kind of situation exist."
"They're all assigned by the official's group," said spokesman Dave Baker. "Assigned at random. And a Pitt grad was out there, too."
Pitt is State's most heated rival, to the point where buttons were being worn here this week that said: "My two favorite teams -- Penn State and whoever plays Pitt."
By the end of the game, the lions realized that Maryland had thrown more at them than sour grapes. The result was about what always happened under Jerry Claiborne, except that neutral watchers actually felt Ross' team could come from behind and tie.
There is a difference in how both coaches do the same thing. Ross' teams pass on any down; Claiborne's rarely pass before November. Claiborne's teams pass out of desperation, so opponents can key on it and quickly douse come-from-behind fires; Ross' first Maryland team leaped from 10 points down to one ahead in the third quarter.
And fooled one of the best defenders anywhere.
State's Joe Paterno calls safety Mark Robinson a faster Jack Tatum. "I've never seen anyone in so many game-breaking situations," he gushed.
Today, the junior from Kennedy High School in Silver Spring was chasing Russell Davis in two game-breaking situations. State has a well-deserved reputation for making all the proper defensive adjustments at halftime, having driven such as Art Schlichter and Dan Marino daffy with inventive maneuvers.
Came Maryland's first offensive play of the second half today; came a 50-yard touchdown pass. Boomer Esiason found Davis almost lonesome 40 yards downfield. It took the Terrapins nearly a quarter to get the ball again; this time Davis was not quite so wide open, brushing Robinson off for a 60-yard touchdown.
State charged back, of course, and probably would have done whatever was necessary to win even if Ross had kept his head.
Not long before the Maryland bus left for home, Ross was pensive. He and his team had not quite passed their first test, but they hardly had failed it. One lesson that hit crack-back hard here last sea son was not to make amny instant judgments about coaches.
I almost anointed Gerry Faust after Notra Dame beat LSU in its opener; he was close to awful much of the rest of the season. So the bottom line, literally, today about Ross is that he seems good enough to keep an eye on for a while.