Usually animated, Maryland's three team leaders who agreed to face the media Saturday -- Domonique Foxworth, C.J. Brooks and Shawne Merriman -- sat stone-faced. Along with anguish, the players exuded a sense of disbelief, as much for what had just occurred as for the arduous road that remained ahead.
"This," Merriman said after the 20-7 loss to Georgia Tech, "is really a big deal."
Maryland's season is at a crossroads, hinging in large part on a decision Coach Ralph Friedgen is expected to make today. Will Friedgen choose 20-year-old Joel Statham, 19-year-old Jordan Steffy or both to quarterback the team Saturday against North Carolina State?
A fourth consecutive berth in a bowl game could ride on the answer. As Friedgen said, "There is a lot that goes into this decision."
Several schools, including Tennessee, Michigan, North Carolina State and Louisiana State, have used either two quarterbacks or a freshman behind center with varying success. But no program of merit has inserted a freshman quarterback midway through this season, as Maryland is considering even with four of the country's most dominant defensive teams left on its schedule.
Complicating matters is the fact that neither Maryland quarterback has distinguished himself. Friedgen, who met with coaches to make the decision, is choosing between Statham, who has seven interceptions and 10 fumbles, and Steffy, who Friedgen admits "is not there yet." Friedgen said there is a chance both could play against North Carolina State, which has the nation's top-ranked pass defense.
The challenge in playing two quarterbacks is multifaceted; a coach must retain each player's confidence and the offense's rhythm -- and win games amid mounting pressure. "I think it is a little bit delicate to manage," LSU Coach Nick Saban said.
Tennessee has alternated two quarterbacks much of the season, both freshmen, before recently relying heavily on Erik Ainge. Youth alone, Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer said, should not eliminate a quarterback's chance to get on the field.
"Coaches are more apt to get a young one involved quicker because of the pressures to win," Fulmer said recently. "And kids are coming in more prepared than they used to be. Both of these kids [Ainge and Brent Schaeffer] came out of really fine programs and were well coached in passing games. That's really the hardest adjustment they have to make."
Friedgen said before the season that he would have no qualms playing a freshman quarterback. Steffy played quarterback for four years at Conestoga Valley (Pa.) High, relying on a playbook that was more than two inches thick. After he signed with the Terps, Steffy studied Maryland's four-inch thick playbook all spring.
Improving footwork was a point of emphasis in summer training camp. All in all, though, Steffy made significant progress rising through the depth chart; Friedgen even said late in the summer that Steffy was the most accurate passer of all his quarterbacks. Steffy entered Saturday's game midway through the third quarter, led a scoring drive and showed that some areas still need work.
"Mechanically, sometimes he takes the wrong drops to a pattern, little things like that," Friedgen said after the loss. "Or he does not read the right guy. Nothing that can't be corrected or won't be corrected as he grows, it's just you're putting this kid in some tough competition right away."
Getting each enough practice is another challenge. As the starter, Statham has gotten about eight of the 13 snaps during a typical 10-minute practice period.
"That can be a concern, particularly when dealing with two freshmen," said Fulmer, whose team usually splits practice plays equally between the starter and backup. "If you had a senior and a freshman, it would probably be easier."
In one respect, Statham achieved Saturday what Friedgen requested: eliminate turnovers. But the sophomore managed little else, completing 6 of 14 passes for 36 yards. Afterward, Friedgen allowed both quarterbacks to speak to the media, but both declined. Statham, when allowed to speak to the media, has not ducked questions in a season that has been nothing if not erratic. His seven touchdown passes have been offset by interceptions and errant pitches on option plays. And he had to listen to fans cheer Saturday when Steffy entered the game.
Much like last season, the loss to Georgia Tech will prove pivotal. Maryland (3-2) either will rise as it did last season, when it won all of its subsequent games, or unravel. Friedgen likened the adversity to what the program encountered after the 22-0 season-opening loss to Notre Dame in 2002.
Friedgen implored his young players Saturday to "grow up in a hurry." By Sunday, he was more upbeat, pledging that the team will be better because of Saturday.
"I'm going to really work on the positives and get these kids up," Friedgen said. "I have a lot of faith in these kids. I really feel they'll bounce back and respond."