What college football player worth a chinstrap couldn't get inspired over thoughts of Hawaii in late-December? South-seas zephyrs; alluring women; perhaps a mai tai by the pool, if the coach isn't perched in a nearby palm. With a teeny, slim possibility at the Aloha Bowl, Virginia gave Maryland an unusually tough game yesterday.

For as long as many can remember, Maryland has been high-fiving on the sideline early in the third quarter in these matchups. Even under George Welsh, reporters usually pray for something clever by the Cavaliers band, so there at least will be an entertaining paragraph after the score gets recorded.

For slightly more than a half, the affair was predictable, though not boringly so. After all, when have you seen a television cameraman charge right into a huddle?

The networks pay handsomely to intrude mightily in sport. But when the CBS eye wormed between the Virginia tackle and the tight end, or some such, an official gave it 15 yards for invasion of privacy.

This was fairly close to the moment a Virginia kickoff returner suddenly thought he was Cal Ripken Jr. How else to explain why Quanah Bullock made that diving catch of a liner intent on bouncing into the end zone?

If this were baseball, Bullock could have hopped up after the catch and done something thrilling. Had this been fully professional football, Bullock would have been able to arise and scoot upfield.

In college football, a catch often is an error. Once you're down, you stay there. So instead of the ball being on the 20, after the presumed touchback, Virginia started from its six.

This is the sort of problem from which the Cavaliers rarely recover against the Terrapins. Not this time. Not quite.

Virginia assumed an early lead, as it did last year, on some brilliant thinking. On first-and-goal from the four, Howard Petty sort of hitched himself to 295-pound all-America Jim Dombrowski's belt and followed the clear path into the end zone.

A year ago, Virginia also took an early lead, 14-6. Riled, Maryland then scored 21 straight points before halftime.

No Terrapin, on the field or in the stands, got too excited over the quick deficit. And when the Terrapins ran and passed for a 23-7 lead at the half, their thoughts turned to an early escape from the cold.

No sooner had that notion been firmly planted than it got bulled aside by a sudden and horrifying possibility: Maryland could lose.

By the time the announcement flowed over Byrd Stadium that the Terrapin Club would hold a postgame party, Virginia was in the process of converting it to a semi-wake.

From a grave-like hole, Virginia clawed to within two points, 23-21, with only five seconds gone in the fourth quarter.

Perhaps at dusk, Virginia's players still could see Waikiki Beach. Or perhaps Maryland's players began thinking prematurely about the fun town Detroit figures to be for the Cherry Bowl in about three weeks.

For all the money involved, nobody was seen tossing cherries onto the field after Rick Badanjek or Ferrell Edmunds pranced into the end zone.

Anyway, the Terrapins were in trouble.

"The first half they ran a lot of different plays," Maryland defensive guard Bruce Mesner said. "The second half they stayed with what had worked."

Whatever it was specifically, it worked grandly. A team unable to complete a pass the first half still was able to run, and run, and run, and run some more in the second.

Howard Petty was gaining enough ground to resemble Richard Petty to Terrapins fans accustomed to rock-solid defense. And Petty was only able to come within five yards of Keith Morgan (who had 129) as the Cavaliers' top rusher.

With its pride on the line, Maryland made certain somebody other than Virginia touches down in Honolulu. Everybody who was supposed to play brilliantly did.

When the Terrapins needed defensive excellence, it came. At times, the Cavaliers scarcely were able to fall forward. When delicate touch was required to keep drives alive, quarterback Stan Gelbaugh had it.

Disaster got stuffed. As it developed, the only postgame defense Maryland needed was the familiar one about dreamy preseason thoughts getting pricked. How oranges turned to cherries.

In truth, not much defense is necessary to those who bother to think. Maryland achieved its third straight league championship. Its only losses were to three top-five teams with a combined record of 29-2-1.

"We're a half-step from being a great team," Mesner said.

"Lots of teams would like to be 8-3 (for the fourth straight regular season)," Keeta Covington added.

The definitive line was Mesner's, for his reply to a frequent complaint: why can't the offense be awesome entire games?

"Maybe when the defense puts in 60 minutes, the offense will put in 60 minutes," Mesner said with we're-all-in-this-together logic. "And remember we've (lost to) great teams. You don't always beat your man off the line."