The Maryland football team had plenty to savor Saturday after finishing off N.C. State 26-20 following a late scare.
The defense played perhaps its best game of the season, excluding shaky pass coverage on the Wolfpack's final drive. A run-heavy offense scratched out what it needed, turning a pair of turnovers into touchdowns at the start of the second half while scattering four field goals over the rest of the game.
And Maryland earned its fifth victory, matching its total for each of the last two seasons, and moved within a win of postseason eligibility.
The Terps (5-2, 2-1 ACC) suddenly are close to a lot of things. Close to bowl eligibility. Close possibly to making an unforeseen push for an Atlantic Division title. Close to dreaming about bigger things than the program experienced in consecutive 5-6 seasons.
Close, though, doesn't mean much to Maryland this season.
"We're not there yet," junior safety Christian Varner said. "We still have a ways to go. We still have things to work on. We didn't finish the game the way we should have finished. We shouldn't have let them get in position to score. We should not have allowed a lot of things at the end of the game. But we did a lot of things well, and we're still trying to grow to our potential."
The Terps might need a growth spurt in coming weeks as they face what coach Ralph Friedgen described as "murderer's row" in a closing five-game stretch. Visits from Florida State and Miami, erstwhile superpowers yet still talented teams, are on the horizon, as are trips to division rivals Clemson and Boston College.
All have been mentioned as possible conference title contenders this season. Even plucky Wake Forest, the Terps' final opponent, has generated buzz as the little-school-that-could in the first half of the season.
Then there's Maryland, which might be the most anonymous of the three dozen BCS conference teams to have accumulated five victories.
"So far I don't think there's been much attention given to Maryland as far as in the ACC, and that's fine with us," quarterback Sam Hollenbach said. "We're just hungry to keep getting those wins."
The Terps have done it with incrementally better performances coupled with well-timed strokes of good fortune. Saturday's defensive display was encouraging to a unit plagued by tackling woes all season. The offense didn't commit a turnover, a rarity in recent years, and special teams thrived early behind kicker Dan Ennis and newly reinstalled kickoff specialist Obi Egekeze.
A similar effort might be enough to produce a victory over Florida State on Saturday.
"Our players, they're like most fans and match scores," Friedgen said yesterday. "They see N.C. State beat Florida State and beat Boston College, and knowing we beat N.C. State, I think human nature says that can be done. Who knows? I know anything can happen."
As the Terps are well aware -- and nearly were reminded in the fourth quarter Saturday. Friedgen bemoaned their tentative play in the final eight minutes, hinting it was perhaps a vestige of Maryland's 27-23 loss at Georgia Tech this month. The Terps wasted a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter then, spoiling an otherwise impressive day.
Faced with the possibility of a similar collapse two weeks later, the Terps stopped one N.C. State drive and turned it into a field goal. Later Maryland recovered an onside kick, perhaps at last exorcising the team's tendency of wasting opportunities over the past few seasons while also cementing the self-belief Friedgen has desperately sought and hopes can carry his team far.
"Absolutely," linebacker Wesley Jefferson said, disgust across his face at the mere thought of squandering a late lead. "If we continue to win, hopefully we'll see Georgia Tech again."
Note -- Friedgen declined to update the status of senior wide receiver Drew Weatherly, who missed Saturday's game, citing his policy of not providing injury information.