- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2003

JACKSONVILLE, Fla.

As you lurch toward baggage claim at Jacksonville International Airport, the red neon sign looms large: “403 DAYS TO THE SUPER BOWL [XXXIX in February 2005].” Other than gaggles of chattering Maryland and West Virginia fans, there is little indication today’s Gator Bowl — or, to give commercialism its dastardly due, the Toyota Gator Bowl — is only one day away.

Similar signs greet visitors at the major hotels and the downtown Riverfront area, which one grumpy Marylander likened to “a poor man’s Inner Harbor.” The 59th Gator Bowl — once the nation’s premier second-tier New Year’s affair after Rose, Orange, Cotton and Sugar — now seems like an afterthought to many in its own back yard. Which it might be, too, for Maryland’s perplexing football team.

When his Terrapins dash out to confront West Virginia this afternoon before a record Alltel Stadium throng of 79,000, coach Ralph Friedgen might have both fingers crossed behind his ample back. He won’t know what to expect from the troops although they battered the Mountaineers 34-7 back in September. The Terps haven’t played since Nov.29, you see, and were hard enough to figure when engaging an enemy each week.

It doesn’t really matter, though, because this game means relatively little to Maryland beyond its share of the $1.6 million payout to the ACC. When Friedgen’s first Terps team stunned everybody by going 10-1 and landing in the Orange Bowl two years ago, bedlam erupted among the long-deprived faithful around College Park. But subsequent 11-3 and 9-3 seasons, with bowl dates in the Peach and Gator, represent something of a psychological letdown. Blame the Fridge, if you will, for setting Maryland’s new standard of football excellence too high and too quickly.

In terms of re-energizing fans, impressing potential recruits and adding valuable continuity to Maryland’s program, a victory today would be helpful. But don’t listen to Friedgen when he calls it “a big game,” as coaches always do. Really, it’s a more of a rest stop on the way to whatever success the Terps might enjoy someday at college football’s highest level.

During a final media session yesterday, Friedgen offered the obligatory thanks to Jacksonville for its hospitality, as if the Terps might have hit town expecting sticks and stones to break their bones. But when asked to describe the Gator Bowl’s ultimate import, the Fridge stumbled momentarily: “Well, anytime you win your last game …”

Friedgen made up for that with some self-deprecating humor, a quality seldom displayed by his peers in the clipboard and earphones brigade. Talking about the 17,000 Maryland fans who decided to celebrate New Year’s in North Florida, he observed, “People kept coming up last night at dinner and asking to have their picture taken with me. I don’t know why anybody would want to have their picture taken with me. Blows my mind.”

Maybe such attention pays tribute mostly to the Terps’ ability to rebound. For two years now, Maryland has salvaged poor starts with lengthy winning streaks. Ranked No.15 in last August’s preseason polls, the Terps responded by losing to Northern Illinois and Florida State before routing The Citadel (61-0) and West Virginia to restore self-respect. It’s startling to realize that, if not for a late October loss to Georgia Tech, this modestly talented outfit would be toting a 10-game winning streak to Jacksonville.

Friedgen, who appears relatively candid in comparison with most of his peers, has acknowledged several times that he isn’t sure how to motivate his team. The Fridge deserves great credit for pushing it this far, but these Terps have maintained rather than extended the idea Maryland football is back to stay.

And remember, that effort will become much harder next season when Miami and Virginia Tech join the ACC. So far Friedgen’s main competition for championships has come from Florida State, a rival the Terps have yet to beat in 14 tries. With the Hurricanes and Hokies arriving, Maryland must contend with two more Florida States in the conference — meaning elite programs that win big year in and out.

Under Friedgen, Maryland football has made remarkable progress escaping the doldrums to which it sank under Mark Duffner and Ron Vanderlinden in the ‘90s. But the program has almost as far to go before reaching a truly rarified level — as alumnus Friedgen noted yesterday by saying, “We’re still a couple of years away from where I really want to be.”

Invited to place this season in the larger perspective of Maryland’s football history, he reverted instead to coachspeak: “I’m only worried about this game. The only thing that’s important is the next game.”

Wanna bet?

For what it’s worth, meaning almost as an afterthought, let’s call this one Maryland 31, West Virginia 24. Then Terps fans hither, thither and yon can set their football sights on still better days and nights to come.


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