- The Washington Times - Friday, November 21, 2003

Maryland will discover today whether it’s still among the ACC heavyweights.

The Terrapins (7-3, 4-2 ACC) visit N.C. State (7-4, 4-3), and the winner likely will get a Gator Bowl bid as the conference runner-up, assuming Maryland then would beat Wake Forest next week. Both programs failed to challenge Florida State for the ACC crown or retain their preseason ranking, but a victory still would mean a New Year’s Day bowl. A loss could mean playing a bowl in Boise, Idaho.

“We can either win out and go to a good bowl game or lose two and go to a not-so-good bowl game,” guard Lamar Bryant said. “As long as we’re in the postseason, we’re making strides. To not be in the postseason would devastate our program.”

The game is another crossroad in coach Ralph Friedgen’s third season. After taking the 2001 ACC crown and winning the Peach Bowl last year, the Terps have been pressed to maintain the program’s momentum. An 0-2 start knocked them from the polls, and their three losses matches last year’s defeats and exceeds 2001’s two.

The Terps counter that too much was expected by fans who filled Byrd Stadium a record six times and could spur a stadium expansion in 2006. Still, Maryland could be 9-1, given its narrow losses at Northern Illinois and Georgia Tech.

Now Maryland must win out to come close to expectations. Anything else would mean a clear dropoff. Friedgen dismissed concerns about a letdown, saying the program’s progress is now measured in “style points” and which bowl is reached.

“There was a time where we’d just be happy to go,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s progress or being spoiled. [Fans] should just feel happy for whoever wants us. It’s important we get to a bowl, but I would love to play on or around New Year’s. Not many teams get to do that.”

Said defensive end Kevin Eli: “It’s not what we expected coming into the season, but we’ll take it after everything we’ve been through.”

The Gator Bowl would be a major comeback for a team that was staggered twice this season and only recently gained momentum. Losses in their first two games on the road nearly stripped players of their confidence. Even a 61-0 pasting of The Citadel wasn’t satisfying because the Bulldogs are a Division I-AA team. A five-game winning streak included only two solid victories, and a 7-3 loss at Georgia Tech was deflating.

Now Maryland either will beat N.C. State or will continue slipping from the ACC’s elite, especially considering that heavyweights Miami and Virginia Tech are joining the conference next year. The Terps aren’t just seeking season-ending momentum but future respect.

“This game means a lot to this program and this season,” quarterback Scott McBrien said. “We still have a chance for a good season. Not a great season but a good season.”

Maryland is seemingly without a close rival, but the Terps and Wolfpack have reached contentious status. Maryland has narrowed the series margin to 28-27-4 after taking the last two by four points each following a double-overtime victory in 2000.

“They want us bad,” McBrien said.

Maryland knows N.C. State quarterback Philip Rivers wants to end his standout career with a solid effort; his No. 17 jersey will be retired before the game. The four-year starter should win ACC player of the year after ranking among the top four in all passing categories nationally.

“We understand it gives you a little extra motivation,” Terps cornerback Curome Cox said. “It’s a great setting for him to walk off the victor, but it’s a huge game for us.”

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