For almost three quarters yesterday, the University of Maryland played its worst football since Coach Bobby Ross' arrival four years ago. "We were being booed and we deserved it," Ross said.
Fortunately for Maryland, the game is four quarters long. Over a stretch of 9 minutes 55 seconds in the second half, the Terrapins scored four touchdowns and a safety to complete a bizarre and inexplicable turnaround for a 40-10 victory over Duke before 46,175 in Byrd Stadium.
"Explain it? If I could explain what we did today I'd be the next Bear Bryant," said one of the confused Terrapins, tackle Tony Edwards.
Duke, an average team in a mediocre Atlantic Coast Conference, tied the game at 10 with five minutes left in the third quarter. And the Blue Devils had forced Maryland into a third-and-10 on the Terrapins' next possession. Duke was one good defensive play away from forcing Maryland to punt.
That's when quarterback Stan Gelbaugh hit Ferrell Edmunds for a 12-yard gain to the 32 that kept alive a drive that resulted in a two-yard touchdown run by Rick Badanjek, making it 17-10 with 1:25 left in the third.
Al Covington's interception of a pass by Steve Slayden set up a touchdown pass by Gelbaugh to Alvin Blount for 24-10. A short Duke punt preceded Gelbaugh's 12-yard touchdown lob to Eric Holder for 31-10.
A fumble recovery on the kickoff and a 29-yard touchdown pass from Gelbaugh to Azizuddin Abdur-Ra'oof made it 38-10. And a few plays later, Maryland linebacker Kevin Walker tackled Duke running back Eric Sanders in the end zone for 40-10 with 6:30 remaining -- 30 points in 9:55.
Several Duke players said that when the score was tied at 10, they thought they had the game won.
"I don't understand what the heck happened," Maryland linebacker Chuck Faucette said. "Can I explain it? No."
Edwards added, "This is really starting to get scary. We've got to start playing from the beginning one of these days."
As good a theory as any is that Maryland played down to the level of its opposition until it had to do better. In the end, the Terrapins (5-2, 3-0 in the ACC) beat Duke by the margin almost everyone had expected.
Gelbaugh had his best statistical day ever, with 314 yards passing and three touchdowns. The Terrapins amassed 501 yards of total offense -- their best this year -- and hardly missed tailback Tommy Neal, who had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee before the game and is expected to miss two or three weeks.
Badanjek rushed for 56 yards and two touchdowns. Blount rushed for 51. Abdur-Ra'oof, who caught four passes for 96 yards, was one of five Terrapins who totaled more than 40 yards in pass receptions.
But those numbers and Maryland's 14th straight ACC victory only partially obscure the fact that Maryland, for three quarters, played its worst game since 1981.
"At halftime, Coach Ross almost killed us all," Faucette said.
Ross' postgame remarks at times sounded like those of a losing coach.
"I'm a little bit at a loss for words," he said. "In the first (three quarters) we weren't catching. And when we did catch, we'd fumble it. We had one interception when the receiver fell down. We had two sacks and three holding penalties in the first half. We missed tackles. Our special teams coverage (which allowed kickoff returns of 52 and 40 yards) left a lot to be desired.
"It was the worst first half we've played in the 3 1/2 years I've been here."
Asked if he was truly upset at halftime, with Maryland leading, 7-3, Ross said, "I think I was. I was pretty damn upset. We may have to start scrimmaging before the games to get ourselves going."
Ross said the way the team played after the third-down pass to Edmunds "epitomized the way Maryland is supposed to play. This has become a trend we've got to stop. We've got to play a full 60 minutes; there's no doubt about it."
Duke held a 3-0 lead six minutes into the game after a 29-yard field goal by Ken Harper. And the Blue Devils surprised Maryland's highly ranked rushing defense by continually running right -- toward Maryland's defensive strength.
Maryland went ahead, 7-3, late in the first half on a two-yard run by Badanjek, who had caught a 15-yard pass on the previous play. Maryland stumbled along through the midpoint of the third quarter. The defense forced Duke fullback Tracy Smith into a fumble at his 20.
On his way off the field, Maryland defensive guard Bruce Mesner screamed at the offensive players as they ran on.
"I was telling them it was about time the real Maryland offense showed up," Mesner said. "They had already played their usual first half."
Even with Mesner's encouragement, all the offense got -- after first and 10 at the 11 -- was a 21-yard field goal from Dan Plocki, making it 10-3.
Somebody might have wanted to do a little yelling at the Maryland defense because the Blue Devils (2-5, 0-3) then ran right for five plays, before Slayden hit Doug Green for a 20-yard touchdown that made it 10-10 with 5:25 left in the third. That's when some of the Blue Devils thought they had it.
Instead, that's when Maryland got it. The Terrapins went 80 yards in 10 plays for the go-ahead score. And after Covington's interception, Gelbaugh completed four passes in the 54-yard drive that made it 24-10.
Gelbaugh, who seemed to be singled out by the boo birds, completed 18 of 32 overall, and two passes on the next drive: a 32-yarder to Abdur-Ra'oof and the 12-yarder for the touchdown to Holder for 31-10. The next pass he threw was the 29-yarder to Abdur-Ra'oof for 38-10.
But Gelbaugh made a quick exit after the game and wasn't around long enough to talk about his heroics.
Edwards, one of the spokesmen for the offense, said, "I think it's all back together now. But it is a little scary."