The Maryland Terrapins came dragging into the locker room at halftime today, down by 21 points and looking forlorn. Even Coach Bobby Ross wasn't sure the football game already hadn't gotten away.
"I had some real doubts coming into the second half," Ross said after the Terrapins had settled all the doubts with a 28-27 victory over Tennessee in the Sun Bowl. "I didn't know if we could do it again or not. To keep doing and doing it . . . well, I just didn't know."
It wasn't quite the greatest bowl comeback of all time, but it was good enough for 12th-ranked Maryland. The Terrapins scored five times in the second half, then got another game-saving defensive play from Keeta Covington to beat Tennessee before a record crowd of 50,126 here.
Covington forced quarterback Tony Robinson to fumble with just more than a minute remaining, stopping a drive that almost surely would have produced at least a field goal and put the Volunteers back on top.
The loose ball bounced right to Keeta's brother Al, who fell on the ball. Keeta had this elaborate explanation of his heroic moment: "To tell you the truth, I really don't know what happened."
It was the first bowl victory for Maryland in five tries since 1977 and pushed the team's winning streak to seven, third-longest in the nation. The Terrapins trailed, 27-22, after Tennessee's Pete Panuska returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.
Maryland scored what turned out to be the winning points when Rick Badanjek, the game's MVP, ran in from one yard with 2:28 to play. And Maryland's players could rejoice over their biggest comeback since six weeks ago when they spotted Miami a 31-0 lead and won, 42-40 -- the biggest comeback in major-college history.
Tennessee's players were understandably stunned by today's rally. "It's indescribable," fullback William Howard said. "I'm really hurting. There's no way they should have come back to beat us."
At halftime, Terrapins defensive end Scott Schankweiler recalled, "The Tennessee players were laughing at us when they went ahead, 21-0. I wanted to say to them sooooo bad, 'Remember Miami.' But I didn't."
As the game was ending, Ross warned his players not to taunt Tennessee in return. "Spread the word, show some class. Don't say anything," television microphones picked up his voice saying.
At halftime, it was his assistants Ross was warning. "I didn't think getting angry was the thing to do," he said. "I told the assistant coaches coming off the field at halftime, 'I don't want any hollering, yelling and screaming. The players are the ones who have to want it. Let's play, not scream.' "
Play they did, unlike the first half when, as Keeta Covington said, "We did everything wrong we could possibly do."
Quarterback Frank Reich, in his final game for Maryland, missed two possible touchdown passes, threw behind receivers twice, had two passes batted down, fumbled once, was partially responsible for another fumble and threw an interception.
"I admit it," Reich said with a smile. "I was terrible."
The offensive line wasn't any better, producing virtually no holes for the backs and allowing Reich to get sacked twice.
The coaches did their part, too. On third and 10, in their own territory, they called for Badanjek to run a sweep and he lost three yards. And on third and 13, they called for a screen pass that gained nothing. "I did think we were a little conservative," Reich said. "We didn't throw down field as much as we would have liked."
Maryland produced 55 yards offense the first half. Offensive lineman Len Lynch said, "I can't see how we weren't fired up the first half. We looked like we did the first two weeks of the season against Syracuse and Vanderbilt."
The Terrapins regrouped at halftime. "I emphasized charcter," Ross said. "I told them they were doing things that weren't characteristic of our team, like arguing among themselves and talking to the Tennessee players."
And, having come from 31 points down against Miami, the Terrapins knew they could make up 21 points.
The first series of the third quarter held the pivotal sequence of the game. Reich nearly was sacked on third and 12, but wiggled loose and hit Azizuddin Abdur-Ra'oof for an 18-yard gain. Abdur-Ra'oof bobbled the ball and nearly dropped it.
But on the next play, Tommy Neal (12 carries, 107 yards) went 57 yards for Maryland's first score. The two-point conversion attempt failed, making it 21-6. "When he ran for that touchdown, you could feel the momentum shift," Tennessee right tackle Tony Simmons said.
After forcing Tennessee to punt, Maryland got a 23-yard field goal from Jess Atkinson -- his 16th straight success -- to make it 21-9. Then, the Terrapins got their big break. Robinson scrambled free and had yards of running room ahead, but lost the ball when hit by linebacker Chuck Faucette.
Bruce Mesner recovered for the Terrapins at the Volunteers' 23, and Badanjek scored from the one. Again, the two-point attempt failed, but Maryland had pulled to 21-15, and there were four minutes left in the third quarter.
Tennessee started throwing the ball. Robinson (15 of 24 for 132 yards, one touchdown) didn't know why. "We were getting five yards a pop on the ground," he said. The change in strategy helped Maryland hold Johnnie Jones, who rushed for over 1,000 yards both this season and last, to 69 yards on 16 carries. In the air, Robinson got three incompletions and out on the next series, giving Maryland the ball.
The Volunteers tried to blitz on second down, but Reich -- now looking like his usual self -- read the defense, took a short drop, and threw up the middle to tight end Ferrell Edmunds who completed the 40-yard touchdown play that gave Maryland a 22-21 lead with 22 seconds left in the third period.
It took only 11 seconds for Tennessee (7-4-1) to regain the lead. That's the time it took for Panuska to grab the ball three yards deep in the end zone and go all the way down the field for a touchdown. "I wanted to kick every one of them on the kick coverage team," Ross said. Panuska was credited with a 100-yard return.
The Terrapins didn't score on the next series. But after holding Tennessse again, Maryland took 12 plays -- 11 runs -- to move 80 yards for the winning score. Neal started the drive with a gain of nine on a draw play, and Badanjek and Blount took it from there.
But until Robinson's fumble, it looked as if Maryland's offense would have to score again. Badanjek couldn't even bear to look when Robinson took off and had gotten inside the 25. "I just turned around and said, 'Touchdown.' Then, I heard all these people hollering and screaming. I turned back around and we had the ball," he said.
Keeta Covington said he was primarily looking to stop a long pass. And Schankweiler said, "The only play that could have worked in that situation was a draw, and that's what he called."
Robinson said if he had it to do all over again, he just would have fallen on the ground. After all, Fuad Reveiz, the all-Southeastern Conference place kicker, had already made a 53-yard field goal in the first half. This would have been a chip shot.
"But you can't blame Tony for trying to get more yards," Simmons said. "We never should have been in that position because there's no way -- no way at all -- they should have come back like that.
"But they did."