Unlike a year ago, when lost opportunities invariably led to defeat, fate smiled on Maryland yesterday at Byrd Stadium when Scott Zolak hit Gene Thomas with a short pass with 1:01 remaining. The play went 51 yards for a touchdown and the winning points in a 20-13 triumph over Virginia Tech.

The spectacular play rescued a frustrating afternoon for the Terrapins, providing a storybook ending for a record-setting day. In borrowing a page from another quarterbacking graduate of Ringgold High in western Pennsylvania -- Joe Montana -- Zolak's late-game heroics came on his 28th completion of the day.

That set a Maryland single-game mark for completions for the fifth-year senior, and in his first collegiate start. Zolak connected with eight receivers, for 303 yards and two touchdowns.

"It's a good feeling, but most of all I'm glad we won," he said. "It wouldn't have mattered if I threw five passes, as long as we won the game."

Zolak's first touchdown pass was also one of 14 receptions by H-back Frank Wycheck, who was academically ineligible to play until he appealed and won earlier in the week. The redshirt freshman's 14 catches set another school record, bettering John Tice's 11 set in 1982.

And the game-winner to Thomas came on the first reception at Maryland for the wide receiver who transferred from Montgomery College in Rockville.

"There's nothing really to tell," Thomas said. "I read the checkoff and Scott read the checkoff. All I had to do was catch the ball."

Still, that touchdown, and subsequent victory, wouldn't have been possible without a defensive effort that consistently saved Maryland from its numerous pratfalls. The Terps turned over the ball on four straight possessions after Dan DeArmas had given them a 13-10 lead with a 22-yard field goal with 9:58 left in the third quarter.

But Virginia Tech could score only three points off the mistakes -- choked off by the Maryland defense. On the series prior to the winning score, for example, the Hokies were pushed back from the Maryland 43 to their own 35 with a pair of sacks.

"The defense deserves all the credit. They did a great job," said Zolak.

"There was a totally different feeling on the sidelines. We knew we were going to win this game," added linebacker Jack Bradford, describing the defensive unit's improved attitude from a year ago. "That's what we talked about at halftime, not being denied. They have a good team, they played hard but we were going to win. These are the new Terps."

Still, the Maryland fans among the 34,198 in attendance certainly had to be flashing back to the bad old days after Zolak fumbled the ball away and threw an interception on the two possessions before the game-winner.

The play before the touchdown pass to Thomas almost met with disaster as well. Virginia Tech defensive back Damien Russell of Washington let a pass from Zolak to Wycheck slip through his hands near the sideline.

"Bad things are going to happen," said Zolak. "I watched the Redskins {Friday} night and Mark Rypien threw an interception early then came back and got three touchdown passes. You've got to put those things out of your mind. We still had a quarter, quarter-and-a-half to go."

And he had the presence of mind to pick up the Hokies' man-to-man coverage and call an audible to Thomas, who beat Greg Lassiter on a quick slant over the middle, then broke back to the outside and free.

"We were looking at that all day," said Coach Joe Krivak. "I thought we should have taken it more but we didn't."

With Wycheck controlling the flats (106 yards receiving) and tight end Bret Boehly (five catches, 80 yards) open all day in the middle of the field, Zolak said the offense "didn't really need it . . . but when they started blitzing in the fourth quarter and the time running out we needed to hit something quick."

The play scotched Virginia Tech's hopes for ruining Maryland's debut with a team of Hokies including 24 capital area players.

Vaughn Hebron, a tailback from Baltimore, led the visitors with 69 yards rushing. Zolak was sacked three times in the game, once by Anthony Pack, who also recovered Zolak's fourth-quarter fumble, and the third time by Todd Brown of Baltimore, who also made an interception with 3:30 remaining.

After Zolak's touchdown pass to Thomas, the Hokies moved to the Terrapins' 33. But Will Furrer's fourth-down desperation pass with four seconds left fell incomplete in the end zone.

Much to chagrin of Coach Frank Beamer, Tech couldn't put enough offense together to take advantage of the chances its defense created.

"They tried to give it to us and then we turned around and gave it to them," Beamer said. "We played so poorly down the stretch but the truth is that we never did get into a rhythm during the entire game."

The same might be said of Maryland. As expected, the Terrapins used their one-back offense throughout, not only spreading the ball around to their receivers but getting a better-than-expected 94 yards rushing from tailbacks Troy Jackson (71 yards) and Darren Colvin.

"The most important thing was the kids hung in there and believed in themselves," Krivak said. "We made a couple of mistakes but we also did some good things and that's what we have to build on."