When Maryland and Syracuse come in from the arctic cold Saturday to play in the second Cherry Bowl here in the Silverdome, the 20th-ranked Terrapins will be in a rather uncomfortable no-win situation.
A loss to the Orangemen in the 1 p.m. game (WJLA-TV-7, WMAL-630) would throw yet another downer on what started as such a promising season. Yet a victory over a 7-4 Syracuse team probably won't be perceived by the college football world as any great triumph.
The Terrapins (8-3) have tried to approach this game as they did games against nationally ranked opponents during the regular season.
"If it didn't have any importance we wouldn't be playing it," Maryland Coach Bobby Ross said. "I think Syracuse is a very, very tough opponent."
Many of the Maryland players seemed to have found some incentive in the fact that on their last trip to these parts, in late September, they suffered a 20-0 loss to Michigan.
"We were embarrassed here a couple of months ago, and we'd like to show the people in Michigan we really can play good football," defensive guard Bruce Mesner said.
From all indications, about 50,000 fewer people will see Maryland-Syracuse in the Silverdome than watched Maryland lose in Ann Arbor.
Neither school could sell its allotment of approximately 13,000 tickets, although Maryland donated thousands of its tickets to local charities that distributed them. Cherry Bowl officials have said for a month they sold 60,000 tickets. But the actual number of people in the 80,000-seat stadium may barely reach 50,000.
Still, it won't keep Maryland, playing in its fourth consecutive bowl, and Syracuse, playing in only its second bowl in 20 years, from collecting approximately $1.2 million each.
Numbers aside, the game holds some intrigue even if the event isn't especially inspiring.
The game will feature two of the nation's fastest receivers: Azizuddin Abdur-Ra'oof of Maryland and Syracuse's Scott Schwedes. Each has been clocked in the 40-yard dash in less than 4.4 seconds.
It will feature two all-America linemen: Syracuse defensive tackle Tim Green, whose 13 1/2 sacks say he's one of the best pass rushers around; and Maryland's 305-pound offensive tackle, J.D. Maarleveld.
"When I saw Maarleveld, I didn't believe anybody could make a suit to fit him," Green said. "I could put a couple of stakes in his suit and camp out in it as a tent for a couple of days."
It also would be difficult to find two more dissimilar offenses. Syracuse will run the option, an offense that has given Maryland trouble. And Maryland may wind up throwing the ball 40 times against a Syracuse defense that is strong against the run and very suspect against the pass.
When Syracuse Coach Dick MacPherson was told that Ross said his team would try to run the ball early, MacPherson replied: "They've got to prove it to us. Show us. Now, if they line up and start throwing it, we worry. We have a problem there. Don't show us."
The Syracuse pass coverage problems exist primarily in the secondary, where three red-shirt freshmen play. The only senior is cornerback David Lee, who isn't especially fast. Asked if it made sense for Lee to cover Abdur-Ra'oof, MacPherson said, "It doesn't make sense, but he'll be covering him anyway."
Syracuse relies on a strong, four-man pass rush without blitzing.
"We will put pressure on Stan Gelbaugh (the Maryland quarterback)," MacPherson said. "We will do it. With four men. We always do. You might not notice at first because Bobby'll throw some quick dinky stuff at first to get (our pass rushers) discouraged.
"But if Gelbaugh drops back five or seven steps, he's going to be bothered by us."
Maryland does have running back Tommy Neal, who missed much of the season with knee problems, back at full strength. But the Terrapins, in all likelihood, will go downfield as often as possible.
For Maryland to pass, however, left tackle Tony Edwards is going to have to to keep Green off Gelbaugh. Maryland used offensive backs in practice this week to rush the passer and simulate Green's quickness.
The other intriguing factor in the game is MacPherson's naturally conservative offensive philosophy. The Syracuse players have said they need to throw the ball to win.
"We've got to score some serious points," said Green, a rather revealing statement for a great defensive player on a fine defensive team to make.
The option has given Maryland trouble. "I don't mind telling you it has been a problem for us," Ross said.
The fact that the Syracuse option is run by Don McPherson, a more-than-capable passer, may cause Maryland even more problems.
Even so, MacPherson tried to convince listeners he isn't afraid to throw. "We gotta throw it," he said. "I feel comfortable with doing anything that will help us win."
All things considered, Maryland still should win; the story line is much the same as it has been all season. "It's pride now," Mesner said. "We don't want to finish with an 8-4 season."