Ron Vanderlinden couldn't stop the tears, couldn't hide them. Really, it was a wonder he could gather himself and his thoughts at all. Coaches, particularly those who choose to take on rebuilding jobs, are braced for losing and quickly come to grips with the agony it causes. But there's no bracing for what happened to Maryland. Nothing prepares you for losing like this.
With 90 seconds left yesterday, Maryland was preparing to celebrate a come-from-behind victory against its biggest rival, a once-in-a-lifetime rushing performance by LaMont Jordan, a rare winning season, what promised to be the school's first bowl invitation in nine years, and the sense that the rebuilding effort had really accomplished something. The Terrapins were running out the clock; it was time to pour Gatorade on the coach.
Ninety seconds later, Maryland's players were writhing on the ground, having suffered a most unnecessary loss. No victory over Virginia, no winning season, no trip to a bowl game, no winter holiday away to boost the visibility of the program, no recruiting advantage, no practices still to be held, no good feelings. Just tears, and despair and devastation out of nowhere. A complete and total reversal of fortune.
Usually, football losses are overstated. Not this one. "I don't think I've ever felt quite like I do right now," Vanderlinden said. "This has to be the worst loss I've ever been associated with."
Over and over, Vanderlinden kept coming back to the same word: devastated. The players used the same word, and it was appropriate. It might be the closest thing we'll see to Joe Pisarcik fumbling in Giants Stadium against the Eagles. All Maryland needed was one first down to clinch victory. In the absence of that, simply staying in bounds to keep the clock running would probably have left Virginia too little time to come back. On an afternoon when Maryland rushed for 445 yards, the Terrapins couldn't get seven yards when they needed them.
You lose a game like that, you can replay a dozen plays. You can agonize over sacks that turned into scrambles, the missed field goal that should have been automatic at the end of the half, the sideline pass with 26 seconds left that beat a blitz but should have been knocked down. But it is two plays, in the final analysis, that will be unshakable. There was Jordan slipping to the ground on first down with plenty of running room in front of him. And there was quarterback Randall Jones going out of bounds to stop the clock, giving Virginia the extra 35 seconds or so it couldn't have won the game without. "A huge snafu," is how Vanderlinden described it.
The irony is, Maryland wouldn't even have been in the game without Jordan and Jones. As fine a job as the defense did in stopping Virginia's Thomas Jones (28 carries, 91 yards), Jordan was the best player on the field. He rushed for three games' worth of yardage in one afternoon, 306 yards. That beat the school record by 46 yards. "Probably the finest game ever played on this field," Vanderlinden said. "I'd think, one of the great performances in college football history."
Jordan averaged 8.3 yards per carry. He ran tough for inside yards. He took one 90 yards for a touchdown that shocked the NFL scouts who probably came to see Virginia's Jones in the first place. Sometimes Jordan set up his blocks, other times he dropped his shoulder and punished a tackler.
Maryland's Jones didn't have great numbers. He completed only four passes for 60 yards. But his passes yesterday were his only attempts all season; he had been playing safety, for crying out loud. He was moved back to quarterback this week only because everybody else is either injured or too inexperienced to be relied upon to win a game with so much on the line. So Jones did his best, and that appeared to be good enough.
With 1 minute 40 seconds to play, first down at the Maryland 37, the Terrapins appeared to have opened a huge hole for Jordan. "I tried to turn the corner, and just slipped," he said. "I could see nothing but daylight ahead of me."
On second down, Jordan ran for three yards, forcing Virginia to use its final timeout with 1:27 to play.
On third down, having been told to run the option with Jordan but to keep the ball, Jones didn't get down quickly enough. Vanderlinden already had turned his attention to the punt team. "I know nobody intended for him to get pushed out of bounds," the coach said. There was still 1:22 left on the clock. Even after the ensuing punt, Maryland had used only 28 seconds in the four downs. A disaster.
Asked if Jones staying in bounds would have saved Maryland 35 seconds, Vanderlinden said, "More. By the time they respot the ball and restart the clock . . . "
Virginia scored with 26 seconds left. Maryland gave Virginia, say, 40 seconds. Do the math.
"I was trying to get down, but I got pushed first," Jones said. "It just hurts."
"Virginia never should have had the opportunity to get the ball back," Jordan said. "We should have gotten a first down. . . . Words can't describe what I'm feeling right now, not to mention what the rest of the guys in the locker room are feeling."
Can you imagine a player rushing for 306 yards and crying his eyes out as he leaves the field? "I'm tired, hurt, beat up, the team lost, we were so close, but now we're so far away," Jordan said.
The recruits visiting Maryland stood in the end zone where Maryland's late Hail Mary passes fell incomplete, looking at the ground, not knowing what to say. They had seen a game that can set a program back, if its caretakers aren't really resilient. They'd seen a game that changes the perception of a season, of how far a team has come. The bowl representatives went home after offering condolences. The Virginia fans chanted, "Aloha means goodbye." And all the Maryland coaches and players could do was walk straight ahead and get to a safe, quiet place as quickly as possible.