For nearly four months, Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen and his players have rejected any comparisons between this year's team and its offensively challenged predecessor. Such protests were natural when the Terps were blowing past Virginia in early October with a 45-point, 570-yard offensive effort. The comparison would seem more natural this week after the team's third setback in four games; a loss in their season finale at N.C. State Saturday afternoon would give the Terps a 5-6 mark for the second year in a row.
Still, three days after a dispiriting loss to Boston College that dropped Maryland's home record to 1-4 and left the team stalled on the precipice of bowl eligibility, the Terps again said such comparisons were unfounded, and that their effort and optimism have not flagged.
"Last year was a completely different story," linebacker Wesley Jefferson said. "It's so frustrating, because we're putting [effort] in and we're getting better, but we're not seeing the results yet."
Several players said the operative emotion in the locker room has been frustration, not discouragement. Indeed, this year's team has moved the ball fairly well even during losses. Saturday, for example, the Terps held the ball longer than Boston College, gained more first downs and surpassed 330 yards of offense for the ninth time in 10 games. Their offense ranks second in the ACC, and notwithstanding several weaknesses on both sides of the ball, the Terps have notched four comeback wins.
Most importantly, players said, this year's team has yet to cave in despite a series of calamitous momentum swings. On Saturday, for example, despite four turnovers -- two of which were returned for touchdowns -- the Terps never took on the beaten appearance that marred last season's 55-6 loss at Virginia Tech.
"When you turn the ball over four times and account for 20 points for the opposing team, you usually lose about 50-7," Friedgen said. "I think they're optimistic and I think that shows in their effort. That's why I feel bad about this team -- I think they're playing hard enough to win."
It sounds like a Pyrrhic victory, except for the fact that a win Saturday would almost certainly send Maryland to a postseason bowl for the fourth time in five years. N.C. State (5-5) is in the same position. With the ACC nearing agreements to put its seventh and eighth eligible teams in the Music City Bowl in Nashville and the Emerald Bowl in San Francisco, only a North Carolina win at Virginia Tech this weekend could cause a surplus of teams.
Maryland's task will be made more difficult by the probable absence of at least one starter. Sources have said that senior wide receiver Derrick Fenner would be suspended one game for his role in an off-campus fight on Halloween night; he has not yet served the suspension. Fenner is third on the team with 34 receptions, and fourth with 417 receiving yards.
Friedgen has declined to name the suspended players, and yesterday refused to say whether there would be changes in his starting lineup this week.
"If there are, I'm not going to say," he said.
Players, meantime, have turned almost philosophical about their mounting losses. Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson repeatedly pondered the thin line between winning and losing Saturday, and yesterday center Ryan McDonald followed suit.
"We play so hard, and just a couple plays here and there, breaks don't go our way and the momentum can really change so fast," McDonald said. "It's just amazing. I mean, you never know which play is going to be the play that can change the outcome of the game."
Then McDonald reconsidered the philosophical approach.
"It's still going to come down to who's coming off the ball and just hitting people in the mouth," he said.
Terps Note: Georgia Tech's victory over Miami appears to have lessened the chances of the Terps winding up in Boise's MPC Computers Bowl. That game's executive director, Gary Beck, said yesterday that his two top choices are 8-3 Boston College and 7-3 Georgia Tech, which faces Georgia this weekend. A Georgia Tech win would raise the possibility of Boston College falling to the MPC Computers Bowl, which has the sixth choice of ACC teams. If that happens, the winner of the N.C. State-Maryland game would likely go to either Nashville or San Francisco.