- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Maryland football team carved out an odd little niche for itself in the last month, pulling out improbable victories most statistical measures would deem improbable at best.

Yesterday’s performance against Miami at Byrd Stadium might have topped them all.

Facing a team still grieving from the killing of defensive tackle Bryan Pata on Tuesday, the Terrapins turned two long plays into a 14-13 victory over the Hurricanes despite an offense that vanished in the second half and a defense that was clearly tiring late.

“I don’t know what to tell you. I’m living a good life,” Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said after his team eked out its fifth straight win by a combined 13 points. “I don’t know how else to explain it. It’s miraculous. It really is. The ball is bouncing our way right now and there was a period where it didn’t bounce our way. Maybe I need to go to Vegas.”

The Terps (8-2, 5-1 ACC) are surely headed someplace warm after remaining in a tie for the Atlantic Division lead for another week. They also placed their own bizarre mark on the victory, running only 37 plays for the game and managing only 53 yards offense in the second half.

Then again, Maryland also became the first team since Florida in 1985 to upend both Miami and Florida State in the same season.

“It’s real big. At this point, it hasn’t sunk in,” said quarterback Sam Hollenbach, who threw for 202 yards, 175 of them and two long touchdowns to Darrius Heyward-Bey. “Our goals are bigger than that, but it’s great to have an identification and some distinction for this team.”

Any result was sure to be rightfully overshadowed by the loss of Pata, who was a three-year starter for the Hurricanes (5-5, 2-4). A moment of silence was observed before the game, and Maryland players agreed to donate their per diem of about $10 a player to Pata’s family.

Maryland received its own scare early in the third quarter when left guard Donnie Woods was immobilized and carted off the field, then airlifted to Shock Trauma in Baltimore. Friedgen said Woods suffered a neck injury, and a team spokesman said the junior was moving and that initial tests came back negative.

The Terps already were struggling offensively when Woods was injured, and after a brief burst reverted to an inert state for the rest of the night. That left it to a defense forced to remain on the field for 73 plays to remain firm.

“Guys were tired, but after about 45, 50 plays, your legs go numb and you’re just running,” defensive tackle Conrad Bolston said. “The only thing you can do is keep moving.”

The Hurricanes seemed on their way to finally taking the lead during a run-heavy drive that spanned more than 10 minutes in the second half. The Hurricanes converted five third downs during the 19-play burst (part of a 13-for-21 effort on third downs for the night), but an open Ryan Hill dropped a touchdown pass after cornerback Isaiah Gardner tripped. The Hurricanes settled for a field goal and a 14-13 deficit.

It was the Terps’ second red-zone stand of game, a happening occurring with remarkable frequency of late.

Maryland has yielded seven field goals and blocked a field goal the last eight times an opponent has moved inside the Terps 20, a stretch that began in the fourth quarter of the Oct. 28 victory over Florida State.

“They can do all they want to get down there because stuff happens,” Gardner said. “Bad plays happen, somebody might have missed an assignment or missed a gap to break a play or give up a pass. But when you get in that red zone, you have to man up. They cannot get in that end zone, regardless. … That’s the man zone. We don’t call it the red zone. It’s the man zone.”

The Terps weren’t through. Quarterback Kirby Freeman, who started in place of the injured Kyle Wright and flustered the Terps with his mobility, had Miami in Maryland territory with more than three minutes left.

However, Maryland’s Josh Wilson dived in to tip his pass away from Ryan Moore, and Trey Covington grabbed the carom for the interception.

The offense, though, couldn’t secure the first down needed to finish off the game. After trying to draw the Hurricanes offsides, Friedgen sent in his punt team with a message that probably would have produced a different response a month ago.

“I’m out there at the end of the game telling them this is one of those moments and they said ‘Coach, we’ve got this covered,’ ” Friedgen said. “Now they’re getting cocky.”

And true to their word. Gardner — who recovered the fumble against Virginia that jumpstarted a rally from a 20-point deficit and ultimately the Terps’ winning streak — darted down the right sideline and drilled Bruce Johnson just as he caught the punt. J.J. Justice pounced on the loose ball, and Hollenbach proceeded to kneel twice to finish the victory.

The two turnovers ensured Hollenbach’s two scoring tosses to Heyward-Bey — the first a 65-yarder, the second a school-record 96-yarder — would be just enough for a nearly incomprehensible victory. The Terps managed only 97 yards offense outside of those two plays, yet still won their fifth straight game by six points or less.

Maryland will take that streak to No. 22 Boston College (8-2, 4-2) next week before meeting No. 18 Wake Forest (9-1, 5-1) to wrap up the regular season. The winner of the Maryland-Wake Forest game will capture the division under all but one of the 16 remaining scenarios; two Boston College wins and two Wake Forest losses would deliver the division to Boston College.

“Every good team I’ve ever been on, when you can win when you’re not at your best, that’s a good sign,” Friedgen said. “It may not be pretty, the stats might not be good, we might have all this other stuff, but right now we’re in the thick of this race.”

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