'It was this far," Ralph Friedgen said. The Maryland coach held his index finger maybe two inches from his thumb.
"You got to make that," he lamented. "You got to make that."
When Joel Statham lined up over center for fourth and inches at the 14-yard line with less than four minutes left in the first quarter, the Terrapins were a snap and a tuck away from quieting a mob of more than 63,000 in a noisy little crevice at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The sun was still gleaming over Scott Stadium on a splendid fall day, and not all the orange-clad Cavaliers fans in the world should have detracted from Statham's goal. Forge ahead for one or two inches, move the chains and score first in an ACC game that would define two seasons -- Statham's and Maryland's.
Except the young Terrapins quarterback never made it, just as his team most likely will never make it to a bowl game in December.
Crucial moments in a college football season come and go by the Saturday, but the inability to secure a tiny margin of real estate so early in the game was more defining than most. That one or two inches showed how much the Virginia Cavaliers wanted the ball back and how maddening Friedgen's football team has become.
A week after the ecstasy that was the first victory over Florida State in school history, Maryland went back to its muddling self. The Terps lost hideously to Virginia, 16-0, falling to 4-5 this season. They need to beat Virginia Tech and Wake Forest in their final two games to become bowl eligible, and there is no evidence that is possible after what happened Saturday.
The Terrapins team that moved the ball against the No. 5 team in the nation eight days ago could not gain an inch on two consecutive downs from the 14. Two quarterback sneaks by Statham equaled nothing but a change of possession and a major shift in momentum of a scoreless game.
Wali Lundy punched in two touchdowns for Virginia in the second quarter, Statham had two interceptions by halftime, and Maryland was chasing its money from there.
For the first time, the offense cannot take all the blame. The Terrapins gave up more rushing yards in two quarters to Virginia (139) than it had in eight quarters against Clemson and Florida State. They didn't lie down, but they were pushed aside by a very good Virginia offensive line. Virginia took the first possession of the first half and just moved Maryland, the line opening holes for Alvin Pearman and Lundy, who were brilliant.
Friedgen and Virginia Coach Al Groh shook hands briskly after it ended, sharing few words. It is unclear if they knew how much that first-quarter stand meant in the scheme of their seasons. But if the Maryland coach was viewed as the great motivator last week, give the same acclaim to Groh this week. His 7-1 team is bound to crack the top 10 again after pushing Maryland around the field for three hours.
Only Miami and Virginia Tech stand in the way of the Cavaliers winning the ACC, which automatically thrusts the Cavaliers into the Bowl Championship Series picture. Groh's offensive line and running backs plowed for 295 yards against a team that had not given up that much in a month.
That little gap between Friedgen's thick fingers won't be especially remembered Sunday. Neither will the controversial pass-interference penalty against Clemson last month nor the overtime loss to West Virginia in Week 3. The Terrapins don't want to hear about how if one play goes the other way in each game and Maryland is headed down here with a 6-2 record, nationally ranked, perhaps a big-time bowl bid in the offing.
No, those moments are usually recalled the night of the team banquet. Or the final game of the season, when players realize what they had and what they lost.
See, that's the worst thing about turning over the ball on fourth and inches. Or giving up a game-winning touchdown in the final 23 seconds to Clemson. Or failing to convert a late-game field goal in the middle of Morgantown, W. Va.
It's not when it happens that hurts the most; it's all the times the memory of the play keeps coming back, long after you left school and moved on.
On his first sneak attempt Saturday, the third down and inches, Statham said he made the yardage but got a bad spot from the officials. He was right. His forward progress gave him the first down anywhere in America but Charlottesville. But that's no excuse for the Terps' failure to make an inch or two on fourth down.
It's no wonder Friedgen said that at halftime, with his team down 13-0, he saw some blank stares from his players.
"It was like the walk of the zombies," the coach said afterward. "Nobody was home."
Not even a team that would now need a small miracle to finish 6-5 and advance to the Smurf Turf Bowl in Boise.
Statham didn't blame Friedgen for talking about how much the Virginia game was "a big stride toward a bowl game" prior to kickoff. But Statham did say how easy it was to come out against Florida State and perform last week because the Terps were "just playing."
You want to tell Statham that he should want the pressure, if not beg for it. The big game against the heated rival with something on the line is why you play Division I college football, no?
But you figure as a redshirt sophomore, he'll eventually learn. And unlike the seniors, Statham has at least two more team banquets to get rid of the regret. After this mediocre Maryland season, there will no doubt be plenty.