ATLANTA The Maryland Terrapins left Atlanta yesterday afternoon with bleary eyes and satisfied smiles. Sleep was as scarce as Tennessee points the night before, when the 20th-ranked Terps throttled the Volunteers 30-3 in the Peach Bowl.
“It’s still kind of a shock to me,” said guard Lamar Bryant, of Maryland’s first postseason victory since the 1985 Cherry Bowl. “Its like, ‘Wow, we did that. I watched the highlight show. Yeah, we did it. It’s an awesome feeling.”
Players visited Atlanta’s hot spots well into the night or hung out in the hotel, where hundreds of Maryland revelers were partying until sunrise. The Terps were celebrating their 11-3 record, which matched the 1976 team for most victories in program history. They also felt the fans beating the tradition-rich Vols was a landmark victory for a growing program.
Maryland felt it hadn’t fully arrived as a program until Tuesday night. The Terps were shell-shocked last season in a 56-23 loss to Florida in the Orange Bowl after winning the ACC title. The Terps had gone 20-5 over the last two seasons under Ralph Friedgen but hadn’t defeated any traditionally tough teams.
“This catapults our program,” Bryant said. “This will help us get back to those BCS games. People are out there watching national teams, and they see us and say, ‘They beat a national power in Tennessee in a major bowl.’ This is motivation for us to do bigger and better things.”
The Terps will attempt to do that without two-time All-American E.J. Henderson, the Butkus Award winner who closed his career with 12 tackles in one of his most dominating games. Nonetheless, the outlook is bright as the defense returns nine starters and the offense brings back seven.
The offense needs to replace All-ACC running back Chris Downs and all-conference linemen Todd Wike and Matt Crawford. However, they should get a boost from healthy tailback Bruce Perry and now-proven quarterback Scott McBrien. All-ACC special-teamers Steve Suter and Nick Novak will be juniors next season, but All-ACC punter Brooks Barnard has exhausted his eligibility.
“We have a good nucleus coming back,” said Friedgen, who now turns his focus to recruiting. “It’s hard to replace a guy like E.J. I have had that situation before and not had good teams. That’s not an automatic.”
Friedgen changed the mentality of a program that hadn’t been to a bowl in the decade before his arrival. The coach noticed a sense of entitlement in his team’s attitude heading into the Peach Bowl, something that was missing a year ago. The Terps no longer view themselves as a Cinderella team after two successful seasons but as a legitimate football power.
The coach made a point of telling his team before the game that Tennessee had beaten only two winning teams, Arkansas and Kentucky. The Vols came in 0-4 against ranked teams.
“I said, ‘Don’t go in to this game hoping to win. Go into this game knowing you are going to win. There is a difference. I want you to play loose and with confidence,’” he said. “That’s what I think they did.”
And the Terps overcame adversity one final time. Maryland had bounced back from a 1-2 start following lopsided losses to Notre Dame and Florida State to reel off eight straight wins. This time, they thrived despite a decimated defensive line. Maryland nose tackle William Shime was suspended two days before the game, and standout defensive tackle Randy Starks played just two snaps before being lost to a groin pull.
Freshman walk-on Justin Duffie started at nose tackle, and seldom-used reserves Tosin Abari and Landon Jones rotated in as part of a patchwork line that held Tennessee to 45 yards rushing on 27 carries. Senior defensive end Durrand Roundtree was the only regular on the line.
“I was worried about [whether Duffie was] going to be able to step in,” Henderson said. “He hasn’t really been in the fire like that. I was just worried. My mind was just racing. I tried to block it out.”
Several long offensive drives and a defensive touchdown on Curome Cox’s 54-yard interception return assured that the Terps’ defense wouldn’t get worn out. McBrien had another efficient game with two touchdown runs and made the right reads and decisions to keep the offense moving.
The quarterback is the main reason the Terps are eyeing an even bigger season in 2003. The 12-game schedule also suggests Maryland could achieve a third consecutive 10-win season. It includes non-conferences home game with West Virginia and The Citadel and visits to Northern Illinois and Eastern Michigan.
“I don’t see us losing a game,” said Suter, who matched an NCAA Division I-A record with four punt returns for touchdowns this season. “My expectations are really high. I want to win the national championship. I think we have a good shot next year.”
Friedgen was quick to temper those expectations but found them amusing considering Maryland’s goals were a six-win season and any bowl berth before his arrival. The coach said the Terps must have several strong recruiting classes and stockpile depth before they can make a serious run for the national title.
But the coach sees the Peach Bowl win as a major step toward joining college football’s elite programs.
“The next level is to win conference championships and hopefully someday win a national championship,” Friedgen said. “We keep winning games like this and we will have a lot more credibility. We won a game on national TV in a national venue against a very fine football team with a great tradition. That has to speak volumes for where our program has gone in two short years.”