Imagine the depressing conversation at a College Park campus apartment last fall, the one shared at University Commons by Sam Hollenbach and Danny Melendez.
Hollenbach was fourth string on the Maryland quarterback depth chart, meaning he had a better shot at calling signals for an intramural flag-football team than the Terrapins. Melendez, the wideout who played in only five games before a hamstring injury ruined his season, also was about to hit his nadir.
He was hurt, the staff wasn't sure he wanted to block and Melendez was quickly falling out of favor with Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen. Two Pennsylvania kids were essentially put in the Fridge's crisper, where they wilted from neglect and seriously considered transferring.
"Last year, neither one of us knew where we were going to be at," Hollenbach said. "There was a time when both of us were thinking about leaving."
Hollenbach shrugged at the memory, letting it trickle away like Maryland's futility against Virginia last season. He spoke with gee-whiz graciousness and candor after throwing for 320 yards and two touchdowns. Melendez caught nine of Hollenbach's 25 completions, piling up 125 yards and one touchdown. The passing game opened up the running game and vice versa. Everybody but the redshirt freshmen had career days in a convincing 45-33 homecoming upset of 19th-ranked Virginia, sending the Cavaliers and their perpetually fidgety coach, Al Groh, back to the drawing board in search of new ways to avoid a return trip to Boise, Idaho, in late December.
Groh recently signed a five-year contract extension for $1.7 million per season. That's Frank Beamer money to play in the Smurf Turf Bowl.
Virginia's inability to control the line of scrimmage aside, Maryland's victory may have said much more about the Terps than the Cavaliers.
It was not merely the 570 yards of total offense piled up, nor the six touchdowns that made Friedgen feel like he was benefiting from the same schemes that pulverized Maryland's competition in his first three seasons. It was how those yards were piled up.
Pinpoint accuracy by Hollenbach, whose two interceptions made him more determined than gun-shy. Money, web-tipped catches by Melendez, Jo Jo Walker, Vernon Davis and Derrick Fenner. There was a big-play execution almost unseen in College Park for two years.
Leading 31-26 with 12 minutes 49 seconds left, the Terps embarked on an eight-play, 94-yard drive. Lance Ball crushed through the line and rumbled 35 yards to make it awfully hard for Virginia to come back. The big play? Hollenbach's 15-yard pass to Melendez on third and 10 from midfield, a slant in which Melendez was hit and kept going.
The roomies hooked up again in the final four minutes when Hollenbach dropped back on third and four from the Virginia 47-yard line and rifled it to Melendez for 20 yards, a deep square-out pattern on the left side that killed all hope for Groh's team.
The evolution of a fourth-string afterthought to a rifle-armed starter able to knock off a top 20 program is fairly impressive. From Friedgen's perspective, the best thing about Hollenbach's development is that he understands he still has a long way to go.
The coach called the 6-foot-5, 218-pound junior into his office Friday, asking the kid where he thought Maryland's offense ranked in the 12-team ACC. "I don't know, lower half," Hollenbach replied.
"No," Friedgen said. "Fourth."
Then the coach asked Hollenbach where he believed he ranked in passing efficiency. Hollenbach had no clue.
"You're number one in passing efficiency in the ACC," Friedgen said.
Relating the story yesterday at the postgame news conference, the message behind the anecdote was clear: Friedgen was building Hollenbach up, making him believe in himself as much as Friedgen already believed in him.
Hollenbach spoke about his first touchdown, a pretty play to Melendez that involved a last-ditch slant in the back of the end zone. He said his roommate was the fourth read on the play, meaning he looked off three other receivers before finding the right one after Virginia's zone coverage had stifled everything else.
"I don't think we've ever hit that in practice," Hollenbach said.
This was large for Maryland for at least a couple of reasons. First, the Terps are now within three victories of being bowl eligible, which would be a huge accomplishment for Friedgen's corps of freshmen and sophomores. Second, Friedgen and Groh do not exchange recipes; they go toe-to-toe for incoming freshmen and don't appear to like each other all that much.
Davis, Maryland's junior tight end from Dunbar High School, remembered the fierce struggle for his services a few years ago. How Groh "asked if it was possible to go to church with my grandmother." There was one story about Davis's grandmother shooing away a Virginia assistant who wanted to drive her to Sunday services, but Davis could not remember that.
"They had a nice bond," Davis said. "It went beyond just trying to get me to go to school there. When I told Ron Prince [Virginia's offensive coordinator] I wasn't interested, he was crying. They were really hurt."
The Virginia staff bore no hard feelings yesterday. They told Davis how proud they were of his career at Maryland, which won a game yesterday as much as another recruiting war.