The lasting image of the Maryland football team’s 23-16 win over Michigan on Saturday came with about 15 seconds left, when Coach Randy Edsall could hide his joy no longer. His emotions had slowly trickled out during milestone wins earlier in the season. He was giddy after the program’s first Big Ten victory over Indiana in September, and he choked up after Maryland beat Penn State for the first time in State College in November.
But once he realized his team could run out the clock against the Wolverines, Edsall looked liberated. His team would be guaranteed a quality bowl game and would have a realistic chance to win eight games for the first time during his tenure in College Park. It also was a victory at the venerated Big House. So Edsall took off his headset and threw it into the sky with both hands. His staff rushed behind him to catch it, and the normally stoic coach walked around the sideline with both fists in the air.
“There were a lot of doubters that said that we couldn’t compete and win in the Big Ten,” Edsall said. “I think we proved we can compete and win in the Big Ten, and I think it is just a great lesson for everybody that you play the games and see what happens at the end of the season.”
Last week’s win over the Wolverines punctuated a season of greater success than many anticipated for Maryland in its inaugural Big Ten season. It also vastly improved the Terrapins’ bowl prospects. Although they had clinched postseason eligibility with the win over Penn State on Nov. 1, six wins “guaranteed nothing,” Edsall said.
Maryland (7-4, 4-3 Big Ten) can further improve its stock in Saturday’s regular season finale against fellow conference debutant Rutgers (6-5, 2-5), a matchup in which the Terrapins are heavy favorites.
“It’s another great opportunity,” Maryland defensive end Andre Monroe said. “Getting a win will take the program to another level. . . . We’re still progressing, every game, every week, every month.”
Maryland was tabbed to finish fifth in the seven-team Big Ten East Division in a July poll of media members, and from the day camp started in August, the team’s attitude was galvanized by the idea that expectations were low. While the team has outperformed those expectations — it will finish either tied for or alone in third place in the East — the gap separating it from the league’s elite has been clear.
The Terrapins started the season 4-1 and easily won their conference debut over the Hoosiers in Bloomington, Ind., but were humbled a week later against Ohio State. That established a pattern of exhilarating highs followed by crushing lows: a come-from-behind win over Iowa in Maryland’s first Big Ten home game, followed by a dreadful performance in 52-7 loss at Wisconsin; the emotional win at Penn State, then the news of star wide receiver Stefon Diggs’s suspension for his involvement in a scuffle before the game and a decisive loss to another league power, Michigan State.
But the program has seen season ticket sales rise about 30 percent this season and hosted its first two sellout crowds since November 2008. And the wins could ultimately take on greater resonance than the losses. Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo, a former coach at Indiana, said Maryland has built a strong foundation for its future in the league by proving itself in opposing stadiums: The Terrapins are one of six teams in the country to have won five road games this season.
Beating neighboring Penn State was considered a pivotal step for the program in recruiting and solidified a potential rivalry in the years to come. Despite both the Nittany Lions and Michigan being down this season, those programs nonetheless boast enormous stature.
“Did they overachieve? Yes, they did,” DiNardo said of Maryland. “The first year going into these venues, there’s a lot more a team has to deal with than just the team it’s playing. . . . I give Maryland a lot of credit.”
Maryland won’t know its postseason destination until Dec. 7, when the Big Ten sorts out its bowl schedule following the selections for the first College Football Playoff. After the national selection committee determines its final rankings, the top four teams will be sent to the semifinals at the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl. Should No. 6 Ohio State win next week’s Big Ten title game in Indianapolis and make the bracket, the conference runner-up would get a berth in either the Fiesta Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Peach Bowl or Orange Bowl.
The Big Ten also has slots in the Capital One, Outback, Holiday, Foster Farms, Pinstripe, Detroit and Heart of Dallas bowls, along with shared agreements with the ACC in the Music City Bowl and the Taxslayer Bowl. It has nine bowl-eligible teams, with Northwestern, Illinois and Michigan all vying to clinch eligibility this weekend.
The possibilities for Maryland are vast. In the latest bowl projections, one ESPN.com analyst has Maryland playing Notre Dame in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium, while another has the Terps playing Southern California in the Foster Farms Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif. CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm is predicting Maryland to play No. 15 Auburn in the Taxslayer Bowl (previously the Gator Bowl) on Jan. 2 in Jacksonville, Fla.
Beating Rutgers to secure eight victories would help vault Maryland into a higher-profile game, but so far this season it hasn’t measured up against its toughest competition. For as much energy as the wins over Penn State and Michigan brought, Maryland lost its three games against teams ranked in the College Football Playoff top 25 — Ohio State, No. 10 Michigan State and No. 14 Wisconsin — by a combined 141-46.
And wherever the Terrapins land, they also will be judged more harshly this postseason because they now represent a conference that earned a reputation for struggling in bowl games over the last decade, DiNardo said.
“We just know that if we go out this week and get a win, the more wins you get, the better bowl game you get to go to,” said Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown, who had 252 yards of total offense in a redemptive performance against Michigan. “Solidifying last week’s seventh win and now being able to try and get number eight would definitely be huge for us, and we understand that.”