- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2007

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — As Wake Forest assistant Ray McCartney scampered down the stairs from the press box to the field, he gleefully and jubilantly took a call from his wife.

“I can’t believe it,” McCartney said repeatedly. “It was the greatest comeback ever.”

Maryland’s football players and coaches, wounded from being on the opposite end of such ecstasy, had little reason to agree with McCartney’s assessment.

The Terrapins lurched toward the cusp of a blowout late in the third quarter, then frittered away a three-touchdown lead before succumbing 31-24 in overtime to Wake Forest yesterday at the former Groves Stadium.

The meltdown was a combination of a cautious and unproductive offense and an eroding defense in the aftermath of a game-changing interception return for a touchdown late in the third quarter that shifted the landscape like a 10-megaton explosion. It was unprecedented in coach Ralph Friedgen’s tenure and could not be explained with ease.

“Whenever you’re up on the road in the ACC, you have a team down 21 points and you blow it, it’s real hard to swallow,” Maryland tailback Keon Lattimore said after the Terps coughed up a 24-7 lead.

Overtime, indeed, turned out to be anticlimactic. The Demon Deacons (2-2, 1-1 ACC), emboldened after controlling the final quarter, sauntered into the end zone after three Josh Adams carries. Maryland (2-2, 0-1) could only counter with a pair of ineffective runs before Jordan Steffy was devoured in the backfield twice to end it.

Steffy was sacked six times and was 11-for-20 for 115 yards, an interception and a lost fumble, and glumly faced what could have been the toughest loss of his life.

“Probably is,” Steffy said. “It’s disappointing.”

It was a Steffy pass that helped Wake Forest ignite its improbable rally. Steffy briefly saw tailback Lance Ball open in the flat in the end zone, but cornerback Alphonso Smith cut in front and galloped 100 yards for a score to make it 24-10 with 1:10 left in the third quarter and end any chance Maryland had of establishing a rout.

“I knew we were in trouble as soon as they took that touchdown back,” coach Ralph Friedgen said.

The interception return got Wake Forest back in the game — and made fools of the patrons who streamed into the parking lots in the middle of the third quarter, disgusted with the seemingly apparent outcome. But it doesn’t cover all of Maryland’s offensive struggles the rest of the way.

In the fourth quarter and overtime, Maryland managed one yard on 18 plays. The Terps struggled to a 6-for-17 performance on third down for the game, and committed three turnovers.

Perhaps the most glaring stumble in the final stages was Steffy’s bootleg on second-and-9 at midfield with 2:49 remaining. He scrambled left and didn’t see tight end Joey Haynos open, then scooted back toward the middle and slid. Wake Forest burned a timeout, and the Terps punted two plays later.

“I just didn’t want to throw a dumb pass,” Steffy said. “There was no alley and I was just buying enough time and getting down. I didn’t want to take a hit and cause a turnover.”

Instead, it ensured the Demon Deacons would have 1:51 to tie it. Quarterback Riley Skinner, who struggled for much of the day in his first action since suffering a separated right shoulder earlier this month, morphed into the effective-when-necessary passer who helped Wake Forest win the ACC title last fall as a redshirt freshman.

Skinner guided an eight-play, 80-yard drive that ended when he connected for a 6-yard touchdown pass on fourth down with John Tereshinski, who floated into the back of end zone unimpeded and even had three seconds to spare on the clock.

Those seconds — and many more — could have been off the clock if Maryland secured just one first down on its last regulation possession.

“I don’t know what he was thinking,” Friedgen said. “He usually manages the game very, very well. I know he was probably thinking I have to stay inbounds. But it looked to me he was just trying to burn up the clock and find a place to lay down where we needed a first down right there.”

The collapse also wasted a stout performance from the defense for the first three quarters. The Terps forced four turnovers — including three interceptions of Skinner — and set up a pair of short touchdown drives, yielding only 201 yards in the first three quarters to the misdirection-reliant Demon Deacons.

Yet Wake Forest rolled up 196 yards on just 25 plays in the fourth quarter against the weary Terps, winning the battle of attrition.

“We don’t have anybody to blame but ourselves,” linebacker Erin Henderson said. “We’re not going to say the offense did this, the offense did that. There’s none of that stuff. At the end of the game we didn’t execute the way we needed to execute, and we didn’t tackle the way we needed to tackle.”

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