Maryland 23, Navy 20
-- After 40 years of waiting, Maryland's two biggest college football teams finally got together again Saturday night, and anyone looking for a speedy resolution was instead faced with more waiting: through a first half dominated by Navy; through a third quarter in which Maryland found its legs and rallied; through a fourth quarter in which the teams traded the lead; and through a frantic final two minutes in which Maryland surged ahead one last time to emerge with a 23-20 win.
The impatient among the announced crowd of 67,809 at M&T Bank Stadium would have nearly wilted during the game's ultimate pregnant pause. The Terps, trailing 20-15, faced a fourth and eight from the Navy 31-yard line with just more than a minute remaining. Untested quarterback Sam Hollenbach, who had used 59 minutes to morph from shaky into solid, dropped back and looked for wide receiver Drew Weatherly, who was covered. Hollenbach's next read was running back Lance Ball, who had chipped in on a block and was headed to the left flat.
The football floated in Ball's direction, his path to a first down was filled with defenders, and the play looked like a final, futile effort for a Maryland team that desperately needed a win. But folly turned to genius as Ball broke several tackles, headed to the sideline and wound up out of bounds at the 11-yard line.
"I prayed we would have some sort of miracle play," said starting running back Mario Merrills, who gained a career-high 149 yards but yielded to Ball in passing situations. "That was pretty close."
The climax came on the next play: Hollenbach fired a perfect strike to Weatherly in the end zone, and then a two-point conversion run by Merrills provided the final margin of victory.
Navy got the ball back with 61 seconds left, but the Midshipmen's ball-control option offense is ill-suited for a hurry-up drill, and several long pass attempts failed to reverse Maryland's comeback.
That offense, though, had been startlingly effective in the first half. The Midshipmen plowed through and around Maryland's defense, scoring touchdowns on their first two possessions and taking a 14-3 lead.
The Terps' defense wasn't helped by a depleted secondary; starting cornerback Gerrick McPhearson was held out of the first half for an unspecified violation of team rules and free safety Christian Varner left because of a sprained shoulder, although he later returned.
It was 14-6 at halftime, but the game took on a different tenor in the third quarter, especially after Navy quarterback Lamar Owens left the game because of cramps in his right hand. The senior -- like Hollenbach, a new starter -- ball-faked and deked his way to 122 rushing yards, and in his absence the Navy offense sputtered. When he returned with 9:15 left in the fourth quarter, Maryland had a 15-14 lead.
Owens immediately embarked on a nine-play, 80-yard drive, and fullback Matt Hall's second touchdown of the night gave Navy its final lead, 20-15 with less than five minutes remaining.
Enter Hollenbach. The junior had led four comeback victories as a high school senior, and he won this starting job because of his decision-making and poise. He had two first-half interceptions last night -- one on a deflection -- and by the final drive was missing his favorite target, senior Derrick Fenner, who left the game on a stretcher after being blasted by two Navy defenders. (Fenner was taken to a local hospital but had feeling in his extremities, a Maryland spokesman said.)
Maryland started at its 18 but was at Navy's 33 after five plays. A holding penalty pushed the Terps back 10 yards; two short gains and a misfire by Hollenbach then brought about the game's signature moment: the ball in Ball's hands, his only route to the first-down marker blocked.
Hollenbach was repeating "c'mon Lance, c'mon Lance" under his breath. Navy Coach Paul Johnson said "I thought we had him." Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen was pessimistic: "All they had to do was make the tackle and we were done," he said.
"I don't even know how I did it," he said. "I just had to do what I had to do."
And thus, after last year's 5-6 campaign, the Terps earned a victory by showing a grit Friedgen at times had questioned during preseason camp. And they had earned it against an undersized opponent whose scrappy effort justified the 40-year and 60-minute wait.
"I told everybody it was going to be like this," said Friedgen, who has insisted that Navy remains Maryland's rival even if none of the current players was alive the last time the teams played. "It always is."