UNIVERSITY PARK, PA. -- These are the games Maryland fans watch through slightly spread fingers, waiting for the critical interception, the fumbled punt return, the fourth-down breakdown in pass coverage. No matter the circumstances, the result is the same.
The few times Maryland has had the better team, Penn State wins. When Penn State is the better team, Penn State wins. When Penn State is very ordinary, make that very beatable, Penn State wins. At home or on the road, Penn State wins. When Jerry Claiborne coaches, Penn State wins; when Bobby Ross coaches, Penn State wins; when Joe Krivak coaches, Penn State wins, with the exception of last year's tie.
Today, Maryland had a very good shot at a successful season. Beating Penn State would have accomplished that. Beating Penn State also would have made it very, very hard -- perhaps even impossible -- to release Krivak. But you know the story: Penn State won. Maryland gave up an interception return for a touchdown, Maryland gave up a touchdown pass on fourth and 21, Maryland fumbled a punt that led to a Penn State field goal.
That adds up to 17 points. Those are the plays that could get a coach fired. "No matter what the plot is, it's always the same old ending," ex-Maryland kicker turned reporter Jess Atkinson said. He was sitting less than 50 feet from the spot he occupied six years ago when a sideline blunder prevented him from getting onto the field to attempt what would have been the game-winning field goal. Before that, a receiver had a two-point conversion pass go through his hands. Maryland lost that one 25-24.
The next year at College Park, Md., when the Terrapins had thoughts of a national title, Stan Gelbaugh had an interception returned for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage and Alvin Blount fumbled at the Nittany Lions 11, giving away a chance for a game-winning field goal try. Maryland lost a whole season in that game, 20-18.
In 1988 a blown two-point conversion that could have forced a tie left Maryland a 17-15 loser.
Penn State comes into these games waiting for Maryland to choose its poison. Nobody owns a respectable team like Penn State owns Maryland.
Krivak, who has been involved in too many of these games -- first as an assistant, now as head coach -- was asked if the most frustrating thing about the latest episode in this series is that the Nittany Lions were beatable today. "The last seven, eight years I think we were at a point where . . . "
Krivak stopped himself, but the thought already had escaped.
If the Terrapins could just avoid shooting themselves in the foot. It took all of 2 minutes 31 seconds for Scott Zolak to fire the first shot. Penn State's Leonard Humphries took it 74 yards for the touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
Maryland's second possession: blocked punt.
Maryland's third possession: Zolak, on third and 15, runs for one yard.
Amazingly enough, the Terrapins were able to compose themselves and show something resembling poise for the rest of the half. They put together a wonderfully confusing 77-yard drive to tie the game, then stopped Penn State and drove again for the field goal to go ahead, 10-7.
The Terrapins were so incredibly pumped up, their feet barely touched the ground. Mike Thomas came in on a safety blitz and sacked Tony Sacca, forcing a punt. No Maryland team had been in such a position at Beaver Stadium: Leading, with the ball.
The Terrapins couldn't stand the thought of such prosperity, and returner Mike Hopson fumbled the punt into the hands of a Nittany Lion. That led to the game-tying field goal. New story line, same ending.
What followed on the first series of the second half was pure agony, even by Maryland-Penn State standards. To think Penn State could convert a fourth-and-21 play when the quarterback had completed exactly one pass the first half, is completely illogical. How badly would Maryland's pass defense have to be not to stop this drive?
This bad. On fourth and 21, several Maryland defenders fell for a run fake. "That just shouldn't happen," Krivak said, shaking his head. Not only did Penn State pick up the first down, but David Daniels got behind Maryland's Michael Hollis for the touchdown.
"I'm peeved at myself," Hollis said. "I take responsibility for it. It turned the game. It was my fault."
It was only 17-10, but anybody who has followed this series, which now stands at 1-32-1, knew the game was over even though the Maryland defense had a terrific goal line stand left.
When Maryland couldn't get Atkinson onto the field for the field goal attempt a few years back, it was a mental blunder; somebody on the sideline screamed out the wrong instructions. This time, "they were physical mistakes," Krivak said. "You don't make mistakes and give them chances because they'll nail you every time."
Physical, mental, metaphysical. New plot, same ending. Maryland is 5-5, better than most people predicted in preseason, not as good as the promise of a 2-0 start. A victory over Penn State would have saved a season, ended the domination and given Krivak a foothold. Again, it was too much to ask.