As has become common this season, Maryland’s football team today faces a monumental game stocked with postseason implications.
Tenth-ranked Maryland can nail the ACC championship and ensure a Bowl Championship Series berth tonight with a victory in its regular-season finale at N.C. State.
“We’ve been in big games before,” said tailback Bruce Perry, the ACC’s rushing leader. “There’s really no difference this time. It’s just that the stakes are higher.”
Maryland (9-1, 6-1 ACC) clinched at least a share its first ACC crown since 1985 last week and can win it outright in Raleigh, along with the conference’s automatic BCS bid. The likely reward for the ACC champion is the Orange Bowl on Jan. 2 in Miami.
This would be the latest and most remarkable achievement under first-year coach Ralph Friedgen, who has already guided his alma mater to its first bowl since 1990 and has the Terps on the verge of a 10-win season for the first time in a quarter-century.
“There are so many aspects to this job,” Friedgen said. “When you kind of see it come together, it’s very rewarding.”
An unlikely turn of events last week allowed the Terps to be in such a position. Maryland beat Clemson 37-20 Saturday night, but it was what N.C. State did that afternoon that made attainable a league title for the Terps. The Wolfpack upset then-league co-leader Florida State, handing the Seminoles their first home loss to an ACC team since they joined the league in 1992 a streak of 39 games.
“Everything just seems to be going our way,” said Maryland guard Todd Wike, of the Wolfpack’s 34-28 stunner in Tallahassee. “People are losing that we need to lose for our season to be better. It just seems to be our year. [N.C. State] helped us out last week. Now we have to go after them.”
It won’t be easy. The Wolfpack (6-3, 4-3) has won three straight, and has the league’s best passing quarterback in sophomore Philip Rivers, and a top tailback in compact speedster Ray Robinson, who rushed for 106 yards and two touchdowns and caught eight passes against the Seminoles.
Maryland counters with the league’s best rushing defense, led by Butkus Award finalist E.J. Henderson, allowing 95.9 yards a game. The Terps lead the nation with 23 interceptions and are second in turnover margin. Rivers will test the secondary and attempt to exploit true freshman cornerback Domonique Foxworth, who played his first game last week and fared well. The corner was thrust into the starting lineup due to Dennard Wilson being out with a pulled hamstring. Wilson should return, but Foxworth will likely start again.
“I knew I had a bull’s-eye on my chest,” said Foxworth, a Baltimore native who deflected a pass in the end zone on Clemson’s first series. “I’m sure it will be the same this week.”
Maryland’s offense is one of the country’s most balanced, averaging 232.5 yards rushing and 211.3 yards passing behind quarterback Shaun Hill. Although Perry hasn’t been getting as many carries lately, the tailback still has a 115.1-yard rushing average.
Friedgen has made a point this week of challenging his players to make sure they don’t bask in their newfound glory and sudden celebrity status.
“Our team has never been in this position before,” Friedgen said. “They are going to a bowl, and the season is not over. We have to understand the opportunity we have. We have to forget about everybody telling us how great things are and focus.”
Players admit there have been distractions and talk of the upcoming bowl but insist it has not hindered their preparation. They bring a serious swagger into what they believe will be their greatest conquest yet.
“Until now, the basketball team has been the big boys on campus,” safety Tyrone Stewart said. “Once we win this game and go to the BCS, they are going to have to move over a little bit and share the wealth on campus. It’s just the time and the place for us to finish the season off on a bang.”