West Virginia 31, Maryland 19
Maryland's season was about to be rescued. Within a two-minute stretch of fourth-quarter excitement -- a life preserver dropped into a monotonous sea of mediocrity -- the Terps completed a 73-yard scoring pass to Vernon Davis, recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff and quickly scored another touchdown.
A thinning Byrd Stadium crowd that had previously been entertained primarily by the "slow-motion wave" was suddenly on its feet. The Terrapins' deficit was two points. Maryland's players danced and waved their arms on the sidelines. "Everybody was happy," Davis later said wistfully.
And then West Virginia marched down the field, Maryland's defense withered in the fourth quarter for the second week in a row and salvation slowly bobbed away. Yesterday's 31-19 loss to West Virginia dropped the Terps to 1-2, in the process turning next week's trip to Wake Forest into a season-defining moment.
"It's a must-win for us," linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said. "We've got to gain some momentum."
Early-season success does not guarantee future results; Maryland was 3-1 last year before descending into a 5-6 pit. And early-season failure is not necessarily catastrophic; the Terps started 0-2 in 2003 before winning 10 of their last 11 games.
"The worst thing we can do is panic," quarterback Sam Hollenbach said.
But there were plenty of important signs yesterday before an announced crowd of 52,413 -- the seventh-largest in Byrd Stadium history -- and few of them were good.
Maryland's defense had pledged to buckle down after allowing long fourth-quarter touchdown drives against Navy and Clemson. And when Jo Jo Walker's gutsy 12-yard touchdown catch made the score 21-19 with more than eight minutes left, the defense had its chance. Instead, with West Virginia starting quarterback Adam Bednarik out because of a neck injury, the Mountaineers (3-0) promptly went 73 yards in seven plays, all on the ground. Jason Gwaltney's second touchdown made the score 28-19; he broke several tackles on that 15-yard run.
"They pounded the ball right down our throats," Jackson said. "There's nothing to say to that."
Hollenbach had pledged to scramble more this week, giving the offense another dimension, and he did. But the 6-foot-5 junior continued to look awkward when on the move, and twice he was hit and fumbled while running. The second of these came after Gwaltney's touchdown, with the Terps driving in West Virginia territory, and Jay Henry's recovery effectively ended the game.
"I completely blame myself for that," Hollenbach said. "It's unacceptable."
Friedgen had hoped to establish some sort of running attack with more physical play on the line, after his team averaged a yard and a half per carry in last week's loss to Clemson. But with West Virginia stacking defenders near the line of scrimmage, the Terps averaged only 1.7 yards per carry on the ground and failed to gain a first down on six of their first nine possessions. They ran four consecutive times on a first-half drive and gained nine yards, thus mixing a four-and-out into the stream of three-and-outs. And they later used their entire second-string offensive line for a series.
"They got after us today," left tackle Derek Miller said of the Mountaineers' defense, which entered the game as the top-ranked unit in the country. "It shouldn't happen."
Finally, the Terps had figured to regain their once impressive home-field advantage against a team that hadn't won in College Park since 1997. Instead, after losing a total of three home games during Friedgen's first four seasons, they now find themselves 0-2 at Byrd Stadium.
After the game, several players referred to the 2003 campaign as evidence that this season is not yet ruined. They also rejected comparisons to last year, noting that nothing has approached that season's offensive misery.
"We're better than last year; we're way better," said Davis, whose 158 receiving yards gave him a career high for the second straight week.
And yet Maryland has faltered during what seemed to be the most forgiving part of its schedule. Its final three home games all come against ranked opponents, and there are trips to Florida State and N.C. State. Maryland would need to win at least two of those five games to finish with a winning record. Friedgen, though, remained unbowed.
"If you think I'm sitting here thinking about losing more games, you're crazy," Friedgen said. "I don't think that way."