For a moment, there was a glimmer. With two minutes left in the third quarter today, Boomer Esiason's 60-yard touchdown pass to Russell Davis gave Maryland a 24-23 lead over Penn State and hope for an upset in Bobby Ross' debut as coach of the Terrapins.
But the seventh-ranked Nittany Lions regrouped in the final 17 minutes as quarterback Todd Blackledge threw two touchdown passes to defeat the resilient Terrapins, 39-31, before 84,597 in Beaver Stadium. It was the largest crowd to see a Maryland football game.
Penn State improved its record against Maryland to 26-1, but few thought the Lions would have such a difficult time against a team that knew little about itself entering this season opener.
"These guys were waiting for Nebraska as their big game, but they barely pulled this one out," Maryland punter Alan Sadler said of Penn State.
"I'm angry that we lost, but now we know where we stand against a good team," said Davis, who caught seven passes (two touchdowns) for a school-record 188 yards.
The only difference between Penn State (2-0) and Maryland in this game was Blackledge's fourth and final touchdown pass, a 10-yarder to receiver Kenny Jackson with 13 minutes remaining.
Jackson dropped the ball in the end zone after being hit by Gil Hoffman, but official Donald Guman ruled that Jackson had possession.
Guman, father of former Penn State player Mike Guman, figured in an important play that started the 60-yard drive. He assessed Ross a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty when Ross came onto the field to argue that the Nittany Lions had 12 men on the preceding punt.
Ross was asked if the calls figured in the defeat. "No, we turned the ball over too many times," he said.
Esiason was responsible for all four Maryland turnoers -- two fumbles and two interceptions. Another mistake, which allowed Roger Jackson to block Sadler's punt on Maryland's first possession, led to Penn State's first field goal.
For Esiason, it was a day of mixed success. He completed 18 of a school-record 36 pass attempts for 276 yards and two touchdowns. But the fumbles led to Penn State's first two touchdowns, and his interception with 1:08 remaining stopped Maryland's drive toward a tie.
Esiason blamed himself for the loss. "I let the team down," he said. "I fumbled the game away. All the mistakes we had offensively were on my account. Everybody else did all that was expected of them and more. Four turnovers for one player -- yoU just can't haVe that."
Earlier in the week, Ross had said earlier he thought the Terrapins would be all right if they could avoid mistakes caused by their being nervous about opening the season in Beaver Stadium.
But three minutes into the game, the Nittany Lions rushed 10 men and blocked Sadler's punt because of a missed blocking assignment. "I saw people coming from everywhere," Sadler said. "I didn't want to kick it because I knew it would be blocked. But I couldn't stop."
Penn State recovered at the Maryland 10 and moved quickly to the one on runs of five and four yards by Curt Warner. But Maryland's rushing defense, which would later send Warner from the game with a hip pointer, held on third and one and the Lions settled for a 20-yard field goal by Massimo Manca.
The Terrapins tied the game later in the period on a 47-yard field goal by Jesse Atkinson.
Esiason's first interception (by Harry Hamilton)led to Manca's 29-yard field goal, making it 6-3 Penn State. Esiason's fumble on his 25 led to Blackledge's first touchdown Pass, an 11-yarder to Warner, increasing State's lead to 13-3 with six minutes to play in the half.
"Don't think the defense gave up a lot," Esiason said. "There's not a lot any defense can do when I keep giving the opposition the ball inside the 40-yard line."
The Terrapins pulled within 13-10 on Willie Joyner's two-yard touchdown run, and had a chance to move ahead before halftime when linebacker Joe Wilkins intercepted a pass by Blackledge at midfield.
But Esiason fumbled on his 38, and Penn State went on to a 20-10 lead when Blackledge threw a 23-yard pass to Kenny Jackson, who beat safety Billy McFadden with just 30 seconds left in the half.
Maryland cornerback Lendell Jones countered with an interception to start the second half. And Esiason, on the next play, threw 50 yards to Davis, who was 20 yards beyond safety Mark Robinson when he caught the ball on his right hip. Robinson, from Silver Spring, Md., was called by Coach Joe Paterno this week "the best safety in the nation."
Penn State drove to the Terrapin goal line again, but Mike Corvino and Gurnest Brown led the defense as the Terrapins held. Freshman Manca kicked a 21-yard field goal for a 23-17 lead.
Then came Maryland's biggest play. Esiason again threw over the middle to Davis, who caught the ball in front of Robinson at the 30, pulled away from him and sprinted into the end zone. That gave the Terrapins a 24-23 lead.
"I thought we were gonna win," Sadler said. "In the fourth quarter, I looked up at the scoreboard and thought, 'My God, we've got a bomb squad.'"
But the Maryland defense, Ross said, "Let up at that point." The rushing defense, which had been impenetrable all day, allowed Warner's substitute, Jon Williams, to run for 12 yards off left tackle on first down, then 33 yards off right tackle three plays later. That set up Blackledge's 23-yard touchdown pass to Gregg Garrity for a 29-24 lead (the two-point conversion pass failed) with less than two minutes left in the third quarter.
Jackson's touchdown reception put State ahead, 36-24. But Joyner, who carried 19 times for 77 yards and was called "fantastic" by Ross, ran 10 yards for his second touchdown. Another field goal by Manca closed the scoring.
"I think it showed that we didn't know what to expect from Maryland's passing game." Penn State Coach Joe Paterno said of the game.
"We figure to learn a lot from this." Brown said. "I feel we could have beaten them. But the score board always has the last word."