How's this for irony: The only Atlantic Coast Conference team Maryland could beat in each of the previous two seasons was Duke. With a chance to clinch a winning season and become eligible for a bowl bid yesterday, the Terrapins gave up 404 yards in the air, including the winning touchdown pass on fourth and goal from their 14-yard line with 1 minute 42 seconds to play, and Duke scored a 25-22 upset.
"It was the opportunity of a lifetime," fifth-year senior defensive end Peter Timmins said, "and we blew it."
There are three more opportunities for Maryland (5-3, 2-3) to gain its first winning season since 1995 and first bowl bid since 1990: on the road the next two weeks against North Carolina State and top-ranked Florida State and at home against Virginia. With Duke having won just once all season, however, this chance clearly seemed the best.
Neither team distinguished itself on defense. Maryland gained 318 yards on the ground and tailback LaMont Jordan had another career-best performance while helping set backup Mookie Sikyala and wide receiver Jason Hatala up for 11- and 17-yard touchdown runs.
Jordan's 227 yards--the third-best single-game total in school history--pushed him to 1,082 for the season and within reach of the single-season school record of 1,359 yards Charlie Wysocki set in 1980. Anytime a team runs the ball 51 times, as Maryland did, it almost always wins.
But not yesterday, before a homecoming crowd of 30,222 that arrived at Byrd Stadium full of hope and left as deflated as Coach Ron Vanderlinden and his coaches and players. Once more a quarterback not widely heralded, Spencer Romine, had all-American-type statistics.
The Terrapins could have put the game out of reach several times. They had a 17-7 lead shortly before halftime. And with a little more than nine minutes to play, they had a 19-17 lead and a third down and one from Duke's 10-yard line. But Sikyala was dropped for a two-yard loss, and place kicker Brian Kopka kicked a 28-yard field goal.
Following an exchange of punts, Duke took over at its 30 with 4:47 remaining. Romine already had burned Maryland's secondary, usually right cornerback Renard Cox, time and again for what Vanderlinden calls explosion plays.
He had one more left on the fourth-down play from Maryland's 14. After a Duke timeout, Maryland had five defensive backs to counter a formation that had two wide receivers wide to the left and one split to the right. Romine threw quickly--and hit Scottie Montgomery between Cox and safety Rod Littles inside the 5 for a stand-up touchdown. Earlier, he'd connected with Duke's other very good wide receiver, Richmond Flowers, for 69- and 19-yard touchdown passes.
To ensure that a field goal would cause overtime rather than win the game, Duke went for a two-point conversion--and Flowers caught Romine's hard throw over Cox in the right side of the end zone. But Kopka never got his chance, as quarterback Calvin McCall was intercepted deep in Maryland territory.
"I was in position to make plays," Cox said. "I just didn't."
Vanderlinden went over more than a half-dozen errors that he said helped grease the downfall. They included two holding penalties on the same drive, a turnover on a free kick after the defense produced a safety, failing on third and short a few times, not mustering much of a pass rush without blitzing and McCall having his poorest game of the season.
McCall completed just 7 of 18 passes for 72 yards and several times missed wide-open receivers for what would have been long gains. Vanderlinden would not comment on McCall's performance and the redshirt freshman declined interview requests.
"This is a game we very much should have won," Vanderlinden said. "Pass rush has been a nemesis. We have not been good on third and long on either side of the ball."
The Blue Devils (2-6, 2-3) had not played as terribly as their record indicated, scoring 31 points in a loss to No. 7 Georgia Tech, defeating Virginia and taking North Carolina State to overtime last week.
They also frequently self-destructed yesterday, getting called for delay of game on that winning drive after Maryland jumped offside, getting a costly personal foul on a Maryland scoring drive and missing a dozen or so tackles.
"Somehow," said Duke Coach Carl Franks, "our guys just found a way to hang in there and made some big, big plays."
Romine has played well at times during his three years at Duke, but was not ranked among the ACC's top six quarterbacks before yesterday. His 404 yards, on 27 completions in 42 tries, was 101 more than his previous best, last season against Northwestern.
Flowers and Montgomery have been among the best in the ACC, and Flowers beat Cox on each of his two touchdown catches. The 69-yarder was on a stop-and-go pattern and he outmaneuvered Cox at the goal line on the 19-yarder.
"I really feel bad for him," Vanderlinden said of Cox. "There were mistakes on wide-open plays that had big consequences. But there were plenty of things that should have been better at other positions."