This was football the way it used to be played: no fancy pass plays, a yard as hard to find as an empty seat on the 50. "It was good, old-fashioned rock 'em-sock 'em football," Maryland Coach Bobby Ross said.
Maryland had just enough rock 'em on defense and enough sock 'em on special teams yesterday to beat previously unbeaten, 16th-ranked Pitt, 13-7, before 48,500 at Byrd Stadium.
Maryland quarterback Boomer Esiason could have played after his sprained right shoulder passed Dr. Stanford Lavine's pregame examination. But even without him, the Terrapins improved their record to 2-1 and found some new heroes.
Defensive end Brian Baker stopped what could have been Pitt's game-winning drive by forcing a fumble at the Maryland seven with 1:14 remaining. His play allowed the Terrapins to take possession and run out the clock.
Doug Cox, a walk-on special team player, blocked a punt and returned it 49 yards for a touchdown to give Maryland a 10-7 lead three minutes before halftime.
Bobby Gunderman can now be remembered for something other than his misadventures in Venezuela before the Aloha Bowl. He blocked a 28-yard field goal attempt early in the fourth quarter.
And Frank Reich, starting his first game at quarterback, completed 13 of 25 passes for 155 yards and put Jess Atkinson, an old hero, in position to kick field goals of 48 and 24 yards. "Maybe I should sit out next week, too," Esiason joked.
"It was a gutty, gutty, gutty performance," Ross said of his team, which won despite gaining only 273 yards of total offense.
But total defense was the attraction today. With 6:36 left to play, Pitt (3-1) took over at its own 37 and began a drive that would cover 56 yards on 11 straight running plays.
The Panther strategy could get no simpler; they would give the ball to a running back and send him behind a man many consider to be the best offensive lineman in college football--Bill Fralic, a 6-foot-5, 290-pound blocker whom Maryland's Tony Edwards had compared earlier this week to a hydrolic lift.
On the previous drive, Pitt had lost all-America wide receiver Dwight Collins with a separated shoulder.
Marc Bailey ran nine yards behind Fralic to the 46. Marlon McIntyre ran 12 yards behind Fralic to the Maryland 42. Next it was Bailey, with one hand on the ball, the other clinging to Fralic's jersey, who followed the lift for nine yards to the 33.
McIntyre and Bailey alternated on the next seven plays--each either behind or inside Fralic's block--until Pitt had reached the Terrapin six for a first-and-goal.
A penalty for illegal use of hands backed the Panthers to the 11 with two minutes to play, but McIntyre followed Fralic back to the seven. "They'd just mash us back for five or six yards," Ross said.
Then came the play of the game. Baker, the right defensive end, had been creeping toward the middle on almost every play, trying to help the linemen like Peter Koch close the hole Fralic was forcing.
"I felt that their quarterback (John) Congemi kept seeing me come closer and closer inside," Baker said. "So I started to think he might use the option he had to pitch out. It wasn't like I just knew he had to do it on that particular play, but it crossed my mind."
It crossed Congemi's mind, too, because on second and seven, he tried to pitch out to Bailey in hopes of running outside. But Baker, a senior, stepped up on a blitz and knocked the pitchout away. Chuck Faucette fell on the ball at the 17, and the game, for all practical purposes, was over.
"We thought we had the option set up," said Pitt Coach Foge Fazio. "But maybe we should have run up the damn belly 35 more times."
"We had to prove to ourselves and other people," said Baker, "that we could still play after losing to West Virginia last week."
It was a good thing the defense played so well, because the offense was going without Esiason, against the No. 2-ranked defense in the nation.
And despite a week of practice centered around concentration and eliminating mistakes, the offense sputtered.
Atkinson's 48-yard field goal gave the Terrapins a 3-0 lead five minutes into the game, as Reich completed four of his first five passes. "After the first series and I could see straight again," said Reich, "I felt comfortable."
But on the next series, the Terrapins were penalized three times in four plays. And on third down, Pitt free safety Tom Flynn intercepted Reich at the Maryland 32.
Pitt passed up a field goal attempt on fourth and goal from the one, and took a 7-0 lead when Bailey flipped into the end zone with 14 seconds left in the first quarter.
The Maryland defense forced and recovered a fumble with Pitt driving, but the Panthers kept blitzing Reich and sacked him on third down, forcing the Terrapins to punt again.
Cox blocked Tony Recchia's punt at midfield on Pitt's next series, however, on a play that Ross and the staff insisted could work.
"Coach Ross told us they had a weakness up the middle on special teams, and we could probably block one," Cox said. "We had to pick a spot to try it, so we did."
Cox, whom the players call "cinderblock hands" blocked the ball into the ground, picked it up after one bounce and ran untouched for the score.
Maryland could have led, 17-7, at halftime after safety Joe Kraus recovered a McIntyre fumble at the Pitt 24. But Dave D'Addio (who later suffered a bruised thigh) fumbled on the five.
Those penalties and mistakes caused Ross serious discomfort last week, but yesterday, when asked about the offensive errors he said, with a smile, "Well, winning tends to take care of those things."
Next Saturday, Maryland will play a team that knows a lot about the winning feeling when it hosts 4-0 Virginia.
Today, the final big play from the special teams took place with 11 minutes to play when Gunderman, one of the team's most valuable players, blocked Eric Schubert's 28-yard field goal attempt with Maryland ahead, 13-7.
"I was totally unblocked," said Gunderman. "I took two steps and dove, like I've been taught, and got one hand on it."
Not even Atkinson's missed 44-yard attempt on the ensuing Maryland drive could spoil the day. "It was the first time Frank (Reich) had ever held for me," Atkinson said smiling. "But he did it just like Boomer, except he kept his mouth closed."