There were less than 76 seconds left, and Ralph Friedgen's reputation was on the line as much as his program's. Friedgen is known as an offensive innovator of great renown. In five dizzying years, he made Maryland matter again, ensuring the good kids stayed at home with intensive recruiting. He beat Florida State, Georgia Tech and Tennessee in a bowl game.
College Park and beyond believed, enough that last season's 5-6 eyesore was considered an aberration.
But with a little less than a minute left, 67,809 at M&T Bank Stadium stood and swallowed. All of Friedgen's gadgetry and in-state talent meant nothing. If Lance Ball could not take a screen pass in the left flat and wiggle free from two tacklers on fourth and eight, Friedgen's mission was about to abort.
If Navy could just make that stop, the best college football team in the state Saturday night would be a bunch of undersized, non-scholarship kids at a service academy, about to pull off a pulsating shocker.
In that instant, Paul Johnson, the homespun Navy coach, would supplant Friedgen as the play-calling wizard, the gambler who succeeded with a fake punt. Johnson was the coach of a team that marched 80 yards in less than five minutes to retake the lead, whose "flex-bone" option offense baffled Maryland's defensive ends and tackles more than any medieval history midterm.
"All they had to do was make the tackle and we were done," Friedgen acknowledged afterward.
So much in the balance. So much for Navy's so-close shot at history.
How Ball scooted and skittered away from two Midshipmen with malice on their minds was still a mystery at about 10 p.m. in Baltimore. But the 5-foot-9, 225-pound immovable stump of a sophomore somehow made that first down. Maryland junior quarterback Sam Hollenbach subsequently eliminated a quarterback controversy in College Park for about two seasons, finding Drew Weatherly between a plethora of gold helmets and blue jerseys in the back of the end zone with a minute left.
When this 23-20 heirloom won by the Terrapins was finally over, the general feeling was: Let's not wait another 40 years for this kind of theater.
Did you see this game? Seven hundred-sixty yards of total offense between the Mids and the Terps. Four lead changes, including three in the final 9 minutes 15 seconds.
Lamar Owens, the senior Navy quarterback who waited three years for his turn, made few mistakes in the pocket and the option, staggering Maryland with two touchdown drives in the opening quarter.
He also handed the ball off to junior fullback Matt Hall with 4:43 left. Hall plunged forward for six yards, falling across the goal line as the stadium erupted. Ten yards from where Hall scampered in, on the south side of the stadium, the Brigade began jumping up and down in unison -- a 4,000-strong glee club gone absolutely berserk. Plebes were passed through the crowd like kids in a mosh pit at a Foo Fighters concert, doing their pushups on the hands of their upperclassmen.
See the World is a nice recruiting pitch for Annapolis. Seeing those stands sway with that go-ahead touchdown was better.
"That offense of theirs drives you nuts," Friedgen said. "I was expecting them to break something there at the end. They're a good football team. But I think we should get some applause, too. Our kids are a very young team. They could have folded."
Their best wideout, Derrick Fenner, was sandwiched in the end zone, helmet-to-helmet hits by two Navy defenders that loosened the ball and leveled the Maryland senior. He left immobilized, but raised his fist as he was carted off to the hospital, where he regained feeling in his arms and legs.
Hollenbach, the fourth-string kid from a year ago who wanted to transfer because he figured Friedgen would never give him a shot, directed traffic, called out defensive shifts, like Peyton Manning in November. Everything he threw up seemed to land on his receivers' fingertips in the final minutes, he led them so perfectly.
Still, it came down to Ball, who, if he did not rescue a program, at least resuscitated a team and a coach about to endure one of the most crushing losses of the Friedgen era, a loss against a program that the likes of Maryland should not even be measured by.
Think about it: D'Qwell Jackson, who finished with 18 tackles and a sack, takes his 6-1, 231-pound frame straight to the NFL after the season; but David Mahoney, who leveled more than a few Terps despite going 5-9 and 216, is headed somewhere more dangerous.
Unfortunately, these schools last played in 1965, the year after some loser of a Maryland player gave the middle finger to the Brigade. The old man received publicity for the classless stunt this week. Like so many pathetic others who cannot turn the page after college, he claimed he would do it again today. Nice way to support the troops, no?
His Terps descendants were a bit unruly Saturday night. Scuffles broke out intermittently in the stands, a good number of red-clad men flexing their Miller Lite muscles. Infants with no say in the matter were hoisted skyward by their parents, like pep-squad leaders. There were too many full sets of teeth for it to be of Morgantown quality. But then, what is?
Still, dignity prevailed prior to kickoff, when the entire stadium rose and applauded the Brigade in its dress whites. All in all, Terrapins fans treated Navy much better than they treated J.J. Redick.
Nearly 70,000 saw a classic that came down to the last minute, a minute that made all the difference between how we view Maryland and Ralph Friedgen today.
Jeer the turtle? Nah. Not today. You could only give Maryland the respect a worthy comeback deserved. Forty years after they last played, you could only celebrate the Terps while not forgetting to salute the Brigade.