Sam Hollenbach spent most of last fall as a fourth-string castoff, receiving little practice time and virtually no game action while he considered transferring. So when Maryland's quarterback said that this past weekend was the toughest of his collegiate career, it was not a trifling designation.

With a chance to knock off Boston College and ensure Maryland of a winning record, Hollenbach had his worst game. There were three turnovers, two of which came inside the Boston College 10-yard line. A fumble and an interception were returned for Boston College touchdowns. In the second half, he was briefly benched.

Sunday, he went to the team house and watched the nightmare play out again on film. For 36 hours, his thoughts were focused on football, and those thoughts were mostly unpleasant.

"I can't tell you how many times I've replayed those couple of plays in my head, the mistakes that I made," he said. "Sunday night I just had an incredible feeling of just wanting to get back out there and get rid of those feelings and kind of erase the bad taste in my mouth."

This weekend provides that opportunity, and the stakes could hardly be higher. Win, and Maryland qualifies for a postseason bowl, most likely the Emerald in San Francisco or the MPC Computers in Boise, Idaho. Lose, and the Terps will be 5-6 for the second year in a row.

This was hardly what they envisioned midway through the season, when their record was 4-2 and Hollenbach was one of the ACC's most pleasant surprises.

Things began to unravel last month against Virginia Tech, when Hollenbach was driven into the ground during a first-quarter run, tearing ligaments in his left shoulder. Before that play, he was completing 64 percent of his passes and had a quarterback rating of 141; such a number would currently rank 26th in the country. Since that play, the junior has completed 57 percent of his passes and has a quarterback rating of 125, which would rank 60th in the country.

The injury, which caused Hollenbach to miss most of one game and could require offseason surgery, limits his follow-through and still causes him pain. He has gotten customized shoulder pads, taken pain killers and received near-daily treatment, but he has steadfastly refused to blame the injury for even a fraction of his recent woes.

"I don't want to make any excuses," he said. "You have to be able to play through pain."

His coaches have said the same, and indeed, there are other reasons Hollenbach's play has declined. Maryland's late-season schedule has included some of the ACC's stronger defenses; North Carolina State, this week's opponent, has the league's fifth-ranked defense.

And more significantly, Hollenbach's decision-making has suffered, a development that would seem divorced from his physical problems. Coach Ralph Friedgen said Hollenbach occasionally tries to force the ball to tight end Vernon Davis -- who has been increasingly double-covered -- instead of taking the next available option. Hollenbach's second interception last Saturday was intended for Davis, who was blanketed by two defenders at the time.

There have also been more basic mental mistakes. The first interception Saturday came on an ill-advised throw into the end zone when Hollenbach could have easily tossed the ball out of bounds.

"Lack of discipline on my part," said the quarterback, who has willingly accepted blame around both coaches and the media. "That kind of stuff is unacceptable. I don't have an excuse for it."

During Saturday's game, he said, teammates came up to him to express their support, and that has continued in practice this week. Second-string quarterback Joel Statham has been erratic when used. Third-stringer Jordan Steffy, who will redshirt this season, will not travel to Raleigh, N.C., because of an illness. Freshman Chris Turner, who has never played, will be the third-string quarterback this weekend, Friedgen said. In any case, the Terps said that they remain committed to Hollenbach.

"I think everybody has faith and confidence toward Sam," running back Lance Ball said. "He had a bad game; every quarterback has a bad game in their career or in a season. Unfortunately, it just happened against Boston College."

Said center Ryan McDonald: "In the huddle he's the leader; we all look up to him and listen to him. We'll follow him wherever he takes us."

Friedgen loathes turnovers and has been visibly frustrated at several of Hollenbach's recent mistakes. But despite the brief benching last weekend, he never wavered when asked who would start against N.C. State.

"I have a tremendous amount of confidence in Sam Hollenbach, the type of person he is," Friedgen said. "If I didn't, he wouldn't be the quarterback. We all have our good and bad days. It's how we come back from the bad ones that really determines who we are."

Terps Notes: Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson was named one of three finalists for the Bednarik Award, given to the nation's outstanding defensive player. Ohio State linebacker A.J. Hawk and Penn State linebacker Paul Posluszny are the other finalists. . . . Davis was named one of three finalists for the John Mackey Award, given to the nation's top tight end. Anthony Fasano of Notre Dame and Marcedes Lewis of UCLA are the other finalists. . . . Sophomore running back Keon Lattimore might not play Saturday because of a shoulder injury, Friedgen said.