- The Washington Times - Friday, December 29, 2006

ORLANDO, Fla. — Sam Hollenbach’s grungy Gator Bowl hat was a relic from the early years of his career, a reminder of both how far he had come as a quarterback and how long it has been since Maryland has reached a bowl game.

The cap remained in College Park for the Terrapins’ trip to tonight’s Champs Sports Bowl against Purdue at the Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium. The times it symbolizes are over, both for Hollenbach and Maryland (8-4).

The fifth-year senior will finish his career as a two-year starter and the guy who helped the Terps snap a two-year bowl drought. And he will look a bit to his future, which he hopes includes a shot at the NFL.

“This is a great ending for me, for my senior year and my career at Maryland,” Hollenbach said. “I just walked off the field, last practice. I don’t even know how many hundreds of thousands of practices I’ve been through at Maryland. It’s a crazy feeling, but it really feels good. It just feels right down here.”

There is a sense of restoration of both the program’s pride and significance, especially after the Terps went 5-6 in each of the last two seasons.

Maryland’s return to relevance mirrored Hollenbach’s rise from an anonymous scout team player to a sometimes-maligned stopgap to a steady game manager.

The latter term can irk many quarterbacks. Yet it is apt for Hollenbach, who has played to his strengths and quietly has moved into the top five in school history in completions (third), touchdown passes (tied for fourth) and passing yards (fifth). He needs only 34 combined runs and throws against the Boilermakers (8-5) to move into the top five in total offensive plays.

Hollenbach’s consistency until the final two regular season games this season could earn him a spot in a pro camp. He will take two classes to complete his mechanical engineering degree in the spring and spend the rest of his time training to extend his football career.

“I was just thinking at practice how much I loved playing football and how it would be very different for me to not have football in my life,” Hollenbach said. “I would love to keep playing. I’ll be working hard in the spring and try to get the best opportunity I can.”

Tonight could be his best chance for an audition. Coach Ralph Friedgen praised Hollenbach’s improvement and believes he could have a future at the professional level.

Hollenbach’s most valuable asset might be his ability to learn and adapt to situations. Friedgen told him earlier this month how former San Diego Chargers quarterback Stan Humphries would deliver a throw into the corner of the end zone and let the receiver run underneath it when he was in the red zone.

During practice this week, Hollenbach did the same thing.

“I was sitting there going, ‘That was a heck of a play,’ Friedgen said. “He takes notes on everything. He’s really a good, conscientious guy. I’m really pulling for him to go out a winner. … The thing I’ve been impressed with from him is he doesn’t get flustered now. He seems in control. Playing quarterback, it’s a lot of making the right decisions and knowing the situation.”

While Hollenbach’s play will be important against Purdue, it won’t be Maryland’s only concern. Purdue coach Joe Tiller employs a spread offense, and quarterback Curtis Painter needs 263 yards to establish new school and Big Ten single-season passing records currently held by former Boilermakers quarterback Drew Brees.

Purdue also enjoys variety in its offense. Three Boilermakers have at least 50 receptions; Maryland’s top pass-catcher, Darrius Heyward-Bey, has 41.

“They spread the ball around,” Maryland defensive coordinator Chris Cosh said. “Those receivers have more passes coming their way than Miss America.”

The game itself, though, won’t overshadow the Terps’ resurgence or the season-long play of a quarterback who a little more than two years ago was a fourth-stringer. Cornerback Josh Wilson remembered how eager he was to face Hollenbach in practice three years ago since he was “the easy quarterback” compared to starter Scott McBrien.

There’s nothing fun about facing Hollenbach anymore, not after a two-year stint as a starter that fans probably will come to appreciate more in the future than now. He is, after all, the quarterback who helped deliver an improbable five-game winning streak this season and a holiday season in central Florida.

“That’s determination and focus, and that’s the type of person Sam is,” Wilson said. “That’s why we are where we are today. Without him at the helm, I don’t know if anybody else could have done it.”

It was a season to be savored for many reasons, from the victories over Florida State, Clemson and Miami to the end of murmurs about the program’s direction. Hollenbach can manufacture a final memory tonight and, in the process, erase the disappointment of a two-game losing streak to end the regular season while giving the Terps a boost for the future.

“I’m just so glad we had an opportunity to come back and play again,” Hollenbach said. “I feel confident in speaking for the whole team that it just feels good to get a chance to get back out and play one more game. … If we can have a good performance, I think it would serve us in the long run.”

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