Maryland football players Peter Timmins, Erwyn Lyght, Brad Messina and four other fifth-year seniors best understand the immense significance of the next month: the possibilities of not only the team's first bowl appearance since 1991 but also for the same-old, same-old pitfalls.
The Seven Survivors, from a group of about 25, have endured much. All were recruited by former Maryland coach Mark Duffner but will end their careers under Ron Vanderlinden. Most switched positions several times, with Timmins going from inside linebacker to running back to outside linebacker to his present spot at defensive end. The one constant: frustration with a won-lost record that, before this season, totaled 16-28.
Less than a week before the season opener, Timmins said: "We've put so much time here not to have a ring or a watch or even a pair of sweat pants or a duffel bag with some kind of bowl insignia on it. All this is risk for reward -- and I've put my body, put my soul on the line going into five years now. Too many workouts. Spring ball. Two-a-days. And I still don't have a ring or a watch."
A bowl is within reach. With a 4-1 record, Maryland needs just two more victories to clinch one of the five bowl slots allotted to the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Terrapins are at home the next three weeks, starting Saturday against Clemson. Next up is North Carolina, which lost quarterback Ronald Curry to a season-ending injury three days ago, and Duke, the only league team Maryland has beaten twice in Vanderlinden's two seasons.
Messina sensed the Terrapins would be in this position, even when nearly every national expert forecasted two or three victories -- at most -- all season. Maryland had won a total of only five games under Vanderlinden and had not beaten a team other than Duke in the ACC.
"Guys are starting to believe," Messina insisted before the first game. "Last year gave us a lot of confidence even if the [3-8] record didn't show much progress. In the [voluntary] summer workouts, 25 guys didn't miss a session. Two years ago, it was something like three."
However, the players also know the circumstances ahead are eerily familiar to their first year, 1995. They were true freshmen, bench warmers during games and part of the scout teams the regulars worked over in practice when the Terrapins won their first four games and then lost to Georgia Tech on the road. This year's team was unbeaten after three games before losing to the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta.
The 1995 team rebounded from that Georgia Tech loss with a 9-6 victory at Wake Forest. This team also rebounded at Wake Forest, with a 17-14 victory. The 1995 team then faced Clemson at home, lost 17-0 and won just one more time to finish at 6-5. That team did not qualify for a bowl game.
"That 1995 team probably had more big-name people," Lyght said, "but kinda got a little ahead of itself [after starting 4-0]. That's not to say we thought we were a lot better than what we were, but we may have slacked off a little bit. With this group, everyone is young and hungry."
Only five of the seven redshirt seniors -- Timmins, Lyght and Delbert Cowsette on the defensive line, and Messina and Jamie Wu on the offensive line -- are starters. Quarterback Trey Evans and defensive lineman Eric Calendine are backups. Wide receiver Jermaine Arrington, cornerback Bryn Boggs and tight end John Waerig also are in their fifth year, but transferred to Maryland.
The Terrapins start three redshirt freshmen on offense: quarterback Calvin McCall and linemen Todd Wike and Matt Crawford. McCall generally has played well -- and overcame some lethargic play during the middle two quarters against Wake Forest with long completions that accounted for the tying touchdown and helped set up the game-winning field goal.
"When you play a freshman at quarterback," Vanderlinden said, "there are going to be some bumps in the road. Those first three weeks I came in and said: `So far, so good.' We haven't really seen what playing a freshman quarterback is. When you play a freshman quarterback against a good team, there's going to be a learning curve."
What all the seniors -- the ones who began at Maryland and the others who arrived later -- have learned is that cliches mean something.
Said Lyght, who was named ACC defensive lineman of the week: "We have to stay focused, take one game at a time, not get the big heads that often come with success.
"Everyone has made that commitment, starting from last season and going through winter workouts, spring ball and summer workouts. Going through all that and losing is quite disappointing. And I think Georgia Tech was a humbling experience. It let us know we're not quite at the top of that chart yet. We've got some growing to do."
Terrapins Note: Place kicker Brian Kopka was named ACC specialist of the week.