It's a little bit early and a little bit unfair to talk about a spoiled season two games before midseason. How can you rip anyone for dreaming?

But teams usually get judged by what they expect of themselves -- and Maryland could see all the way into next year, past a national championship collision in Miami, without experiencing that four-letter L-word.

Even with one loss, a representative from the Orange Bowl thought it possible for the Terrapins to earn a spot in his show. An hour before kickoff yesterday, he made it a point to say hello to Maryland Athletic Director Dick Dull.

Then Michigan stuck Maryland deep in the postseason fruit bowl. Make it the Citrus, or maybe something with a bit more tang, like a Hawaiian punch.

Before the season, Maryland thought what Bum Phillips once expressed so well with his unique cornpone eloquence: we've knocked on the (national championship) door before; this year we're gonna kick that SOB in.

A couple of legends slammed it shut. Be it Joe or be it Bo, the Maryland refrain is Oh, No!

"Gotta go over our mistakes and win the ACC," quarterback Stan Gelbaugh said. That remains a decent-enough goal, and the Terrapins surely will need to put away pouting about Penn State and Michigan to achieve it.

Gelbaugh was near a corner of the Maryland dressing room. Michigan drummers were pounding away in the distance, as Michigan tacklers had pounded away at him earlier. And as critics will continue to do.

Most outsiders and many within the Maryland football program figured the Terrapins would go as far this season as Stanley Morris Gelbaugh would take them.

A fifth-year player, Gelbaugh was the one unknown critical factor on an uncommonly seasoned team, even though he had led Maryland to its annual near-upset of Penn State last season.

It would be neat, and fitting, for Gelbaugh to end such a long and frustrating career with his fist raised in celebration.

That may yet happen.

So far . . .

A timid scribe approached Coach Bobby Ross after the 20-0 mauling and mentioned Gelbaugh's sad performances in "big games."

"There've been plenty of big games," said Ross, more exhausted than snappish. "West Virginia was a big game; so was Boston College."

Indeed.

Penn State was big!

Michigan was bigger!

Gelbaugh played badly both times. Not every-snap awful, for many of his throws were hard and accurate. But on the few plays that seem to matter most he has been lacking.

Yesterday, it was third and goal on the Michigan six-yard line late in the third quarter, the Terrapins behind by 17-0.

Gelbaugh rolled to his left and let fire into such a crowd of Michigan defenders it was hard to identify the intended receiver.

The ball bounced several times, finally into the hands of the diving Doug Mallory for a touchback. Although nearly all the Terrapins shortly held four fingers aloft, to indicate the final quarter was theirs, the end had come.

"Tried to force it," Gelbaugh said.

Ross seemed to yell exactly that when the dejected Gelbaugh reached the sideline.

That is the trait whispered most about Gelbaugh: he dwells too heavily on his primary receiver, follows him so long and hard with his eyes that additional defenders are drawn to the area.

Also, his arm is not nearly as strong as those that have taken Boomer Esiason and Frank Reich to the NFL. Ross said before the season that Gelbaugh had progressed "by a quantum leap."

In the Battle of Baughs, Gelbaugh was outplayed by Harbaugh. Fact is, Jim Harbaugh could have been Sammy Baugh and the Terrapins would not have been more impressed.

Harbaugh was patient and poised, slipping out of danger every so often and popping a completion. His tight end, Eric Kattus, was open by only a half-acre once or twice.

"Those early sacks (of Gelbaugh) definitely set the tone," Michigan defensive tackle Mike Hammerstein said.

Gelbaugh was intercepted four times and sacked for 29 yards in losses. Ross said he never seriously considered using a backup.

"We were trying to get things going," he added.

A frustrated member of the Terrapins family said before the game: "We could have done nothing but run the ball against Penn State and won. All we needed was a quarterback who wouldn't hurt us."

Lots of other players hurt the Terrapins yesterday, including placekicker Ramon Paredes -- and Michigan was quite good.

"But I never thought we could be shut out," guard Len Lynch said. "For sure."

"No excuses," Ross said.

"We beat ourselves," Gelbaugh added.

Could the team have been tight?

"They stuffed us," Gelbaugh said. "That ain't tight. That's getting your butt beat."

True enough.

Ross stayed with Gelbaugh throughout his misery yesterday and against Penn State, partly out of loyalty and perhaps also because no one else has earned his trust.

"We better not hang our heads," the coach growled when someone thought that seemed to be happening at game's end.

In fact, J.D. Maarleveld had arrived at that very conclusion on the sideline in the final few seconds.

"Keep your heads up," he barked.

Some dreams remain, just less lofty ones.