- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 20, 2005

In the distant autumn of 1975, after Maryland lost to Penn State for what seemed the 100th straight time, the old Washington Star asked this nonmusical question in a prominent story: “Has Maryland football gone as far as it can under [coach Jerry] Claiborne?”

Understandably, tough guy Claiborne took considerable umbrage. Encountering the writer of the offending piece the following week in a Cincinnati hotel lobby, Jerry invited him outside for a breath of fisticuffs. Fortunately for the state of my health, I declined.

Three decades later, the same proposition could be tossed at current Terrapins boss Ralph Friedgen, especially in the wake of Maryland’s 31-16 loss to Boston College yesterday at Byrd Stadium — but it would seem prudent to do so from a distance. I don’t think the gentlemanly Fridge would offer to punch me out, but you never know. Losses and frustrations do strange things to people.

The 2005 Terps aren’t awful, just average. Even if they beat N.C. State next week in Raleigh to finish 6-5 and become bowl-eligible, Friedgen’s program has hit a definite plateau the last two seasons.

Consider this: After winning at least 10 games in each of his first three seasons, the Terps have a 10-11 record over the last two. Indeed, there are mitigating circumstances. For one thing, nobody wins 10 games every year unless he is employed by a football factory that considers academics secondary — or worse. For another, it’s not Ralph’s fault the ACC decided to add three consistently successful programs (Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College) to its membership ranks in the past two seasons.

Friedgen alluded to both facts yesterday when asked to describe his degree of frustration and added somewhat defensively, “One bad game shouldn’t indicate the decline of a program.”

Agreed, but that’s not the point. The point is that Maryland does not yet appear ready to join the ranks of programs that challenge annually for league titles and national rankings. Friedgen’s first three teams set the success bar so high (combined record: 31-8) that a 6-5 or 5-6 season qualifies as so-what stuff nowadays.

Friedgen’s first outfit at his alma mater played in Miami’s prestigious Orange Bowl in January 2002. If this team goes anywhere at all, it might be to the MPC Computers Bowl in beautiful downtown Boise, Idaho — hardly a garden spot in December (or any other time?).

I don’t know how many Maryland fans would be inclined to make such an arduous journey. In fact, I’m not sure how many of them will renew season tickets in College Park for 2006. Average crowds of 52,426 flocked to Byrd (pun intended) this season and were rewarded, if that’s the word, with four losses in five games. Shades of Mark Duffner and Ron Vanderlinden, Friedgen’s highly unsuccessful immediate predecessors.

Though no coach worth his clipboard will admit being “surprised” by developments on the field, Friedgen probably is. Before the season, he revealed that he and his staff had re-evaluated their coaching methods after the disappointing 2004 season. And of the ‘05 Terps, he promised, “They’re going to be very good — I just don’t know when.”

Sadly for the faithful, the answer now seems to be “never.”

As they have so often, the Terps made it easy for 23rd-ranked Boston College to win only the third game ever between the schools by committing egregious errors all over the premises. The Eagles boosted an early lead to 14-0 in the first quarter when linebacker Jolonn Dunbar snatched a fumble by Maryland quarterback Sam Hollenbach and gleefully transported it 94 yards in the other direction. In the fourth quarter, with the Terps within hailing distance at 24-16, fellow linebacker Ray Henderson swiped a pass by the hapless Hollenbach and returned it 35 yards for a touchdown that pretty much resolved matters.

“When we were winning 10 games every year, we weren’t doing things like that,” Friedgen noted unnecessarily,

Of course, Boston College forced Maryland into numerous errors with its aggressive defense. Friedgen, a realist, put it this way: “Maybe we were just playing a team better than us.”

For now anyway. But after the magic resuscitation job Ralph and his staff performed on Maryland’s long-dormant program a few years ago, there’s no reason the Terps shouldn’t rebound stronger than ever next season or beyond. It’s just that the waiting will be difficult.

There is a strong precedent established by Hall of Famer Claiborne so long ago. By way of answering the question of whether his program was at a permanent standstill, Jerry’s Terps won their next 15 games over two seasons, ranked eighth nationally in 1976 and effectively silenced any and all doomsayers.

So Maryland fans needn’t despair — but it would be a good idea to put away those “Fear the Turtle” T-shirts for a little while.

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