The Washington Times - November 7, 2008, 01:28PM

Just rolled into College Park, and a caffeine-fueled drive of about four hours after two nights of short sleep provides plenty of chances to think about what the heck took me to southwestern Virginia in the first place.

Maryland, of course, lost 23-13 at Virginia Tech. The Terps couldn’t run. They couldn’t stop the run. And that was pretty much that.

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My mind circled back to three conclusions while scooting around tractor trailers on I-81 while hoping no po-pos spotted me pushing 80 (which, as many who know me can attest, is uncharted territory when I’m at the wheel).

Certainly, some of this reflects an cynical outlook on the program. But there’s also a few grounded points here, too:

* Ultimately, last night was not a terribly meaningful game. It’s heresy, I know, to claim in the vaunted every-game-is-a-big-game culture that a game artificially pumped up (thanks to the Thursday night platform) essentially doesn’t matter. But for Maryland, beyond perception, it simply didn’t.

The Terps can still win out and capture the ACC’s Atlantic Division. And anyone who looked at the schedule at the start of the season would have assumed a midweek trip to Blacksburg was fated to be a loss – and possibly an exceptionally ugly one.

Maryland played with house money last night. Granted, the Terps frittered it away. But given all the circumstances, it’s not a huge surprise they left Lane Stadium with a loss.

* People need to reflect on what realistic expectations were before the season. The Baltimore Sun’s Rick Maesehas an interesting take on last night’s proceedings, essentially arguing that the final three games are basically a post-Election Day referendum on Ralph Friedgen since Maryland isn’t in substantially different straits than the last time it lost at Virginia Tech (in 2004).

This ignores two things. One, what was Maryland supposed to do this year? Taking out eternally optimistic and the most despondent, odds are the bulk of those remaining would have guessed somewhere between 6-6 and 8-4, and probably centering on 7-5 which maybe a slight tilt toward a better record.

And where’s Maryland? At 6-3, and in all likelihood headed for a record in the prescribed range. If fans were offered 8-4 at about 3:30 p.m. on Aug. 30, I suspect many would have happily accepted it and moved on to Orlando or Nashville for some holiday season fun.

Two, and no one wants to hear this, but there is a place in the college football pecking order for Maryland. It isn’t cranking out 10 victories every year. Sorry. Those three years earlier this decade? That’s not what happens all the time at most places – least of all Maryland, which had four 10-win seasons between 1892 and 2000.

Maryland isn’t Oklahoma, Ohio State, Southern California, Texas or whatever longtime national titan you wish to mention. It isn’t even nouveau power Virginia Tech, last night only the latest piece of evidence to illustrate the difference.

Fans don’t do realism, and that’s OK to an extent. But I’d rather view Maryland for what it is – a solid major-conference that should annually be playing in mid-tier bowl games with an occasional higher-profile appearance tossed in – than what any idealist believes it can be.

The Terps have finished the season ranked three times in the last 22 years. While lofty aspirations are nice, it’s foolish to lose track of the reality of the situation.

* Maryland pulled a new trick last night: Actually showing up and still losing. Hadn’t seen this one yet this year. The Terps did some things well, did some other things poorly and didn’t quit.

They just got beat by a better, more talented team.

Friedgen is often cranky after losses, as many coaches are. He was quite restrained last night, and not even as visibly exhausted as he often is after any game.

Maybe that’s because it has to be a little easier to accept when another team is just simply superior. The Hokies were last night, controlling the line of scrimmage. They kept Maryland off the field much of the second half, and made turned the Terps into a one-dimensional offense.

It’s a lot more frustrating to lose to a Middle Tennessee or a seemingly reeling Virginia, and to do it in a way that suggests just about everyone was going through the motions. That didn’t happen last night, even if things didn’t always look all that great and at times were just downright unsightly.

It is difficult to take much more out of last night than that. While there are things to fix, the Terps as a team aren’t inherently different than they were a week earlier.

It’s up to other people to determine how much of a problem that really is.

Patrick Stevens