- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 18, 2005

As he departed Byrd Stadium with one minute to play yesterday, an obviously angry Maryland football fan grumped, “I’ve stayed as long as I can.”

Actually, the fellow should have been congratulated for his endurance. By that time, most of the Terrapin faithful already had fled the scene — many undoubtedly to the nearest pub.

Chaps who cherish cliches often prattle about the “color and pageantry” of college football. But after the Terrapins’ discouraging 31-19 drubbing by West Virginia, their operative hues would appear to be gray and black.

As coach Ralph Friedgen might be the first to tell you, his Terps are hurting badly following back-to-back home losses to Clemson and West Virginia. In fact, Maryland’s chances of going to a fourth bowl game in the Fridge’s five seasons are looking downright dim.

I know, I know — with eight games left, anything can happen. But Maryland needed these two games badly for a 3-0 start after squeaking past Navy in its opener, and now the postseason arithmetic is extremely unfavorable.

On paper anyway, the Terps figure to beat Wake Forest next Saturday and Temple on Oct.8. But even if they do, they’ll need three more victories to be bowl-eligible. By all odds, literally and figuratively, Maryland should have a tough time dealing with Virginia, Virginia Tech, Florida State and Boston College. To go bowling, therefore, the Terps might need to beat both North Carolina and N.C. State on Tobacco Road — always a tough assignment — and spring an upset somewhere else along the way.

In other words, Terps fans, there might be no place like home for the holidays.

Friedgen usually spouts fewer hackneyed phrases than most of his clipboard-bearing brethren, but the loss to West Virginia left him so boggled that he resorted to the old “playing them one game at a time” dodge.

We should forgive him, though. In all sports, there is no sadder creature than a coach who can’t figure out his troops — and that’s exactly where the Fridge is at the moment.

“We didn’t play with the enthusiasm I had hoped,” he said. “We have to make up our minds where football is in our lives.” Meaning, he hopes, No.1.

Considering his team is much less experienced at this juncture than previous editions, Friedgen and his staff must decide whether to whisper words of encouragement and succor into his players’ ears or boot their backsides. Or maybe a bit of both.

“We were tough on ‘em last week because we knew this would be a tough, physical game, and we tried to simulate that,” he said. “Is that the right approach? All I know is, we have to find some way to reach these kids.”

West Virginia certainly found a way to reach — make that bombard — the Terps. Leading by a skinny 7-6 after three quarters, the Mountaineers erupted for 24 points in the fourth quarter to turn the latest chapter of this fierce regional rivalry into a semi-blowout.

Their first-half TD came after a seemingly endless 97-yard drive that ate 6:25 off the clock. But just to show they could score in a hurry, the Mounties boosted the edge to 21-6 midway through the fourth quarter with a quickie five-play drive featuring runs of 19 and 34 yards by fullback Owen Schmitt.

That’s when many fans began heading for the parking lots, but the Terps rallied strongly, if briefly, against the nation’s top-ranked defensive team.

First, Sam Hollenbach and Vernon Davis collaborated on a 73-yard pass-run touchdown. Then Danny Oquendo recovered a West Virginia fumble on the kickoff, setting up a 12-yard TD pass from Hollenbach to Jo Jo Walker that cut the deficit to 21-19 with 8:24 left. But Hollenbach’s attempted pass for the game-tying conversion sailed out of the end zone, leaving Maryland still in arrears.

West Virginia settled matters, though, when blue-chip freshman Jason Gwaltney sprinted 15 yards for a touchdown with 4:56 remaining. Or, putting it another way, Gwaltney brought home the bacon for the Mountaineers.

“It’s not the end of the road,” Terps defensive back Josh Wilson insisted of the loss. No, but the Terps surely are on a path that leads to the end of the road.

Friedgen put the obligatory coachspeak spin on matters by saying, “If you think I’m sitting here thinking about losing more games, you’re crazy.”

The way things are going, he might not have a choice.

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