With 70 seconds left and Maryland on Penn State's 37-yard line, a Terrapins fan standing behind the goal post could be heard muttering: "We can't blow this one."

Sure seemed so.

Against anyone else, a Terrapin soon would have been strutting into the end zone -- and into the arms of that hopeful fellow in red. Or the ball would have been fluttering overhead for a field goal and one-point victory.

After all, this was the team that averaged a miracle a week near the end of last season. Still, some things in life are certain -- and Maryland losing to Penn State apparently is one of them.

Good as Maryland very likely is, it's close to impossible to win in 96-degree heat with a monkey the size of King Kong's older brother on your back.

Came two more plays; came one dropped pass, near the 10-yard line, and the inevitable turnover. And the fan so close to celebration was stalking away yelling: "Why? Why? Tell me why!"

Good word to grab and keep carrying a few more inches. Why. As in why throw a flat pass on the second play of the game that a Penn State guy catches, easy as a loaf of bread in an empty supermarket, and runs 32 yards for a touchdown?

Because, according to Coach Bobby Ross, the Terrapins thought they had the "perfect play" for the Nittany Lions' defense. One defender covering two receivers is a temptation too alluring to ignore, even if that lone Lion plays a position called "hero."

The way Maryland had it planned, Mike Zordich would be in trouble right from the snap of the ball. If he chose to rush toward one receiver, another would be open.

So . . .

Quarterback Stan Gelbaugh checked the situation -- and the message his mind sent toward his arm got fried somewhere near the elbow.

Zordich took the outside Terrapin; incredibly, Gelbaugh still tried to whip the ball to the outside Terrapin. He could have thrown the ball over Zordich, or around Zordich. But not through Zordich.

"Should have gone inside," Ross said.

Trying to be as polite as possible, for the fifth-year senior had not done anything even close to criminal, reporters kept asking Gelbaugh what amounted to why he had been so erratic.


"Didn't throw particularly well," he admitted of the 12-for-28, two- interception performance, "but the heat wasn't a factor."

Any lingering effects of the two quick interceptions? The second ended quite a good drive after the first interception.

"Don't know," Gelbaugh said. "It doesn't help. But you've gotta shake those things off and go along with the game. I felt the same as last time (against Penn State a year ago, when, in the first start of his Maryland life he threw for 308 yards).

"I felt more confident but I still didn't play as well."

Why not put in a relief pitcher?

"I don't know if Stan was struggling," Ross said.

Clearly struggling at times, wild even on screen passes to unguarded friends, Gelbaugh was on target twice when that was critical near the end. But Eric Holder dropped a pass that would have put the Terrapins within chip-shot range of the winning field goal inside the final minute.

And Alvin Blount got stripped of the completion that would have netted a certain first down inside the Penn State 25.

The omens seemed fine at times for the Terrapins. A touchdown pass that would have lifted State to a 14-0 lead got rattled out of the receiver's hands by a wonderfully timed hit by Al Covington.

On the final drive, a possible interception turned into a terrific tip that settled into a 39-yard completion to Azizuddin Abdur-Ra'oof.

Terrapins faithful recalled the ball that bounced off the fingertips of a defender and into Greg Hill's hands for a touchdown in the Miami miracle last season.

Could it be?

At last?

Are the football gods finally blessing the Terrapins?


Just teasing 'em.

"I was hoping," Maryland cocaptain Scott Schankweiler said of the final drive that began with such promise. "But I never felt we were in control. You're never sure, what with what's happened (against State) in the past."

So . . .

The Terrapins walked a blue-and- white gauntlet of Penn State fans singing and harassing them about national championship dreams going sour.

"Gotta look at the positive," guard Len Lynch said. "We wanted to get out of the chute hard, but it's not like we haven't been here before (with a loss in the season opener)."

Ross even said the Terrapins played better yesterday than they did in last season's stinker against Syracuse. For the coach and players, there probably is not much reason to dwell too long on this annual anguish.

After all these years, after nearly everything that possibly could go wrong for Maryland against Penn State has, the mystery may not be too hard to solve.