(AP Photo/Gail Burton)

The last game of the last ACC season ended with a whimper, as a sea of Marshall green leaked onto field and the makeshift stage was erected for the postgame celebration. The Maryland football team had lost the Military Bowl 31-20, its swan song before bolting to the Big Ten, but inside the interview room, there was unmistakable optimism.

“We took big steps from last year, not going to a bowl game, to this year going to one,” running back Brandon Ross said. “Our goal in this offseason is to continue to get bigger, faster and stronger and go into the Big Ten with some force next year.”

Yet if the Terrapins lost by double digits to the Conference USA runner-up, what will 2014 bring, with road games at Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan, not to mention hosting Ohio State and Michigan State? Maryland struggled to stop the Thundering Herd, who racked up 475 yards of total offense behind MVP quarterback Rakeem Cato, while the Terps were 2 of 14 on third downs and never seemed to answer when absolutely necessary.

Ultimately, the game whittled down to Maryland’s inability to stop tight end Gator Hoskins, who caught six passes for 104 yards and two touchdowns. His final reception was like so many others, a simple uninhibited release up the middle that no defensive back bothered to check, and put the Thundering Herd ahead by 11 points, an insurmountable margin with three minutes left.

“They did a very good job of answering right away,” quarterback C.J. Brown said. “That’s definitely going to sink the ship right there.”

Perhaps, but the bigger vessel remains afloat in Maryland’s eyes. The Terps managed seven wins this season despite losing their top two receivers (Deon Long and Stefon Diggs) and cornerbacks (Jeremiah Johnson and Dexter McDougle) to injury, not to mention bumps and bruises suffered by a host of other contributors, like Brown, inside linebacker Cole Farrand and outside linebacker Matt Robinson.

This week, as the Terps enjoyed the Military Bowl festivities and got introduced to their PlayStation 4s, they seemed to treat the experience as a reward for the turnaround, when two wins in 2011 became four in 2012 and the total nearly doubled again in 2013. Given where the program had been two years ago, simply reaching the postseason was victory enough.

Long before the pregame flyover dropped five flag-bearing paratroopers into Annapolis, Maryland was insistent on wanting it both ways – fun during the week, business on Friday. There were bright spots, like Ross rushing for 116 yards on 20 carries, Levern Jacobs catching seven passes for 100 yards and the 99-yard scoring drive that put Maryland ahead 20-17 in the fourth quarter.

But Marshall answered on its next drive, marching 63 yards before Essray Taliaferro plunged in from seven yards, and when Brown launched an interception under heavy pressure into double coverage, the game was over and the celebration began soon thereafter.

“They just gave multiple looks, like we saw,” said Brown, who was held to only 38 rushing yards. “The biggest thing was we kept kicking ourselves in the foot, hurting ourselves with penalties, a couple drops here, I had a couple misreads, just little things that weren’t helping us on first and second down that were creating a very unmanageable third down. It wasn’t anything they did that we hadn’t seen before. We were very well prepared and we just didn’t convert on third down.”

Third-down conversions were among the problems Maryland had. Bringing down Cato was another. After defensive lineman Andre Monroe dropped the junior for two yards on the first play from scrimmage, the Terps, ranked 10th nationally in sacks per game, didn’t reach him again. With time to spare, Cato completed 28 of 44 passes for 337 yards, many on short routes as his receivers found gaps in the Maryland coverage.

“When you defend Marshall, they have more than just one weapon,” Edsall said. “They’ve got a lot of different weapons. There’s matchups you like and you don’t, and we probably could have played a little bit better technically versus them.”

The Terps will carry this bitterness into the offseason, which as many players posted on Twitter during their bus ride home, begins on Saturday. After 60 years, the ACC is gone. Up ahead, the Big Ten looms.

“When it’s all said and done, we had a great year,” Brown said. “We had a winning season that was able to extend to the postseason, go to a bowl game. We had a great time at the Military Bowl. Today was proud of the effort, disappointed with the outcome. It was kind of one of those things. We’ll be ready come next year, have a great offseason and use this to prepare for the future.”