- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 12, 2005

Just before the Maryland football team started stretching one day earlier this week, a car slowed down outside the program’s practice field long enough for someone to shout “Now or never, Terps” before zooming away.

It was hardly expert analysis — screams from a passing car rarely are — but its message was difficult to dispute: The Terrapins’ margin for error grows smaller every week.

It will disappear altogether if Maryland (4-4, 2-3 ACC) cannot deliver a victory at North Carolina (4-4, 3-2) this afternoon at Kenan Stadium. The Terps must win two of their final three games to secure bowl eligibility, a situation that could have been avoided if Maryland had maintained fourth-quarter leads earlier this season against Clemson and Florida State.

Instead, pressure has built as Maryland faces what amounts to a three-game season for the second consecutive November. Last season, the Terps didn’t score a touchdown in back-to-back losses to Virginia and Virginia Tech before defeating Wake Forest in the season finale.

The lackluster finish left the Terps out of the postseason for the first time since 2000, a bitter memory that lingers among holdovers from last season. The disappointment also has heightened the importance of avoiding even the semblance of a pattern of decline in a program that had not played a bowl game in the decade before coach Ralph Friedgen arrived.

“I don’t think you can measure that,” quarterback Sam Hollenbach said. “It’s huge right now. We’ve gone through some things, and we have to get back to focusing on football and limiting our mistakes.”

One of Maryland’s bye week distractions after the loss at Florida State was the involvement of players in a Nov. 1 brawl at a College Park bar. Friedgen suspended three players in the fight for one game, but he has not revealed their identities nor when they will sit out.

The absence of a player or two against North Carolina or either of the Terps’ remaining opponents, Boston College and N.C. State, won’t help Maryland’s bowl prospects, but Hollenbach’s return certainly will. The junior suffered a separated collarbone Oct. 20 against Virginia Tech and lasted only five plays in relief of Joel Statham against Florida State before injuring his back.

The back muscle injury is healed, though Hollenbach could feel he’s carrying the figurative weight of his team’s hopes as he tries to ignore the annoying remaining pain from the separation of his nonthrowing shoulder in the next 15 days. Hollenbach, who led the Terps to a 4-2 start before getting hurt, has regained his arm strength and plans to start the final three games.

“He’s been looking like Sam,” senior receiver Jo Jo Walker said. “He’s come back, and it’s like he hasn’t missed a beat. He hadn’t practiced for a while, and it’s just incredible. He’s been rifling them.”

Hollenbach will face a team in virtually the same situation as his own. North Carolina has endured an up-and-down season, but recent upsets of Virginia and Boston College have renewed the Tar Heels’ chances of reaching their second consecutive bowl. Carolina meets 1-9 Duke next week before traveling to No. 8 Virginia Tech, leaving today as the likely swing game for the Tar Heels’ postseason hopes.

Friedgen is well aware of Carolina’s own fight for postseason eligibility, but he hopes his team is eager enough to inch closer to a bowl to play a complete game for the first time in more than a month.

To that end, Friedgen ended Thursday’s practice by discussing the merchandise players can receive for reaching a postseason game. Small digital camcorders, rings and clothing were among the trinkets Maryland received at recent bowls.

“That shouldn’t be the main reason for wanting to go, but who knows what turns them on,” Friedgen said. “I’m hitting all the buttons I can hit right now.”

A finishing stretch like the one the Terps face produces such tactics, especially since the perception of the program could be at stake even though this year’s team has shown far greater promise than last season’s edition. For veterans, a strong finish would wipe away last year’s disappointment. For Maryland’s horde of younger players, it would provide a much-needed glimpse of the trappings of winning.

“I want to go back to a bowl game so bad,” senior linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “It’s like a reward for us and a vacation also. We get those young guys and get them in there and win out and win a bowl, that’s 8-4, and that’s a winning season that will carry into next season.”

Added Friedgen: “I think it’s important. I don’t think it’s the end of the program. I do think it’s important to continue the momentum.”

If the Terps are to do that, it might just be now or never.

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