Amazing what a 25-yard field goal with 11 seconds to play can do. When Dan DeArmas made good yesterday, giving Maryland a 13-12 victory over North Carolina State, it erased a wholly frustrating afternoon for the Terrapins, sent one set of Byrd Stadium goalposts tumbling to the ground and lifted most everyone in attendance into a state of euphoria that bordered on insanity.
"What do you think, a tossup against Michigan next week?" asked Maryland assistant coach Greg Williams. Certainly the oddsmakers won't agree with that assessment of the Terrapins' next contest, the Wolverines being the nation's No. 7 team.
Then again, after today's improbable win, perhaps anything can happen.
The Terrapins are 3-1, 1-1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Wolfpack fell to 2-2, 0-2.
Maryland's drive to victory was set up when N.C. State tailback Aubrey Shaw fumbled the ball away on a first and 10 from his 45-yard line with 1:22 remaining. The miscue came one play after quarterback Scott Zolak had thrown his fourth interception of the day, an error that seemed to end the Terrapins' hopes for victory.
Even after defensive back Mike Thomas recovered the fumble at midfield, it appeared Maryland would be unable to capitalize on its good fortune. The team was penalized for illegal procedure on two consecutive plays, pushing it back 10 yards to its 40.
When the offense finally mastered the center snap, Zolak (26 for 47, 259 yards) hit wide receiver Barry Johnson for 20 yards. Two plays later, the quarterback, nearly sacked under an N.C. State blitz, managed an off-balance throw toward split end Gene Thomas, who was streaking down the right sideline. The ball was badly underthrown but Thomas came back and made the catch, picking up another 28 yards to the 12.
"They were bringing everybody," said Zolak. "I'm supposed to roll to the outside on the play; Gene is running a clear out while Barry comes over, but after three steps their guys were all over my legs -- I just threw it up there for Gene."
Two carries by Darren Colvin and Troy Jackson moved the ball to the 7 and, after a timeout, DeArmas came on for his field goal. After the subsequent kickoff and two incomplete Wolfpack passes, scores of the 25,371 in attendance came onto the field with the goalpost hitting the ground shortly thereafter.
"It's not like we won the ACC championship or anything but I think the fans were glad that we're producing," said linebacker Scott Whittier. "We've lost those games the last four years."
Maryland lost one of those games last week, an 18-17 decision to Clemson that came largely because of its inability to take advantage of numerous scoring opportunities deep in Tigers territory. The same scenario unfolded yesterday, with three of Zolak's interceptions taking them out of good field position.
The plays seemed indicative of the gloomy afternoon that appeared to cast a pall over the Terrapins even before they took the field.
"I think we came out flat," said defensive back Scott Rosen. "There was no one in the stands and you'd look in everyone's eyes and there were just blank stares." The attendance was some 20,000 less than capacity.
The Terrapins had a difficult time getting off the ground early and the result was a measly 41 yards rushing on 25 running plays for the day. That was somewhat tempered by the fact that Maryland lost 20 yards when Zolak was sacked twice and the Terrapins converted several third-down opportunities on short-yardage runs. On the other hand, N.C. State rushed for 115 yards for the afternoon.
Coach Joe Krivak argued that his team wasn't down but rather feeling the stress of a laborious schedule.
"This was the fourth very difficult football game we've played," he said. "Somewhere in there you get to the point where you wonder how high can you be or how much more can you do it?"
But that strain doesn't seem to apply to Maryland's defense. If lost opportunities and close finishes have been constants this season, so has the defense, which despite playing on more downs than any other unit in the conference, has stood fast.
The defense was missing two starters (defensive back Ron Reagan and linebacker Jack Bradford) and lost its leading tackler, linebacker Glenn Page, to a concussion early on. But still the unit excelled.
Mike Thomas had eight tackles and five other players finished with six, including defensive tackle Lubo Zizakovic, who perhaps made the two biggest plays of the day, blocking an N.C. State extra point in the first quarter and a 30-yard field goal attempt in the second.
"It's no secret, all of our games have been kind of close -- all I did was try to give a little extra effort," he said. "You're lucky if you block a kick all season and after the first I was on cloud nine. When we lined up that second time, I just said no way, I was going to block it again."
Zizakovic said the same attitude prevailed when the Maryland defense took the field following Zolak's last interception. When he came back on, Mike Thomas said he wasn't expecting a turnover but rather "more of a 1-2-3 play and punt to give our offense a chance. . . . It was kind of a shock. I saw them mess-up on the exchange and then the ball was bouncing toward me. A couple of guys missed it so I just tried to fall on it."
Given the offense's struggles, some thought that the defense would have to score for Maryland to win. Of course, after similar droughts against Virginia Tech and West Virginia, Zolak and Gene Thomas had come through with big plays to ensure last-minute wins and yesterday proved no exception.
"It gets frustrating at times but the offense has been pulling the games out," said Rosen. "Even when they keep messing up, I know in my heart that eventually they'll come through with the big play."
For example, in yesterday's fourth quarter, Zolak completed 12 of 18 passes for 145 yards. Excluding the loss to Clemson, the senior is 25 of 39 for 372 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter this season.
"I kind of like the pressure; I think when I'm relaxed I get lazy and out of rhythm, when there's pressure I focus more," Zolak said. "I don't want to let people down; interceptions will happen, I don't worry about them -- I just wanted to make up for it."