- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 8, 2006

ATLANTA — The moment coach Ralph Friedgen was waiting for seemed imminent.

It was the one that would lift Maryland’s football program from more than two years of dwelling in the doldrums of mediocrity. It was one he spoke of at length and with conviction whenever he described just what his team needed to spark a successful season.

It appeared close at hand as Maryland entered the fourth quarter yesterday with a two-possession lead over No. 18 Georgia Tech at Bobby Dodd Stadium and on the verge of its first road win over a ranked team in five years.

Instead, Friedgen and the Terrapins are still waiting after yesterday’s 27-23 loss to the Yellow Jackets.

Rather than celebrating a long-anticipated breakthrough, the Terps shuffled home pondering another squandered opportunity that looked suspiciously like the myriad games frittered away with turnovers and other ill-timed errors a year ago.

“I thought we were going to win the football game,” Friedgen said. “I really have trouble figuring out why we didn’t win the football game, to tell you the truth. I’m very disappointed right now. I think we let this one get away.”

He could make a good argument. The Terps led 23-14 entering the fourth quarter. After a Georgia Tech touchdown, Lance Ball fumbled, leading to the game-winning score, and Sam Hollenbach’s interception short-circuited a drive. Even with those mistakes, Maryland had a chance to win in the final minute before Hollenbach was sacked twice.

Maryland (3-2, 0-1 ACC) displayed more in defeat than it had in three victories over generally nondescript opponents last month. The Terps ran the ball effectively behind Ball. Talented Georgia Tech wideout Calvin Johnson wasn’t permitted many big plays after an impressive opening drive and finished with 133 yards and a touchdown on 10 catches.

“For you guys who have been bashing us and saying that we haven’t been playing that well, we showed we can play with the best of the best in the ACC,” cornerback Josh Wilson said. “I’m looking up. I think we have a very good team. We came out and weren’t able to get the win tonight, but we were able to make some giant leaps today.”

None of them came in the final minute in the red zone, where the Terps appeared every bit a nervous team treading new ground. Maryland put itself in scoring position when Hollenbach connected with Darrius Heyward-Bey, who shook off a tackle from Jahi Word-Daniels on the left sideline and scampered 57 yards to the Yellow Jackets 7.

Ball, who rushed for 116 yards as the Terps’ primary back, moved it to the 4-yard-line on consecutive runs, but things quickly unraveled after a timeout. On third down, defensive end Michael Johnson chased down Hollenbach, who was called for intentional grounding when he tried to unload the ball as he was falling to the ground.

“It’s a three-step drop, and you can’t hold the ball,” Friedgen said. “Throw the ball away. It’s third down. We went over that in the huddle. Don’t take a sack.”

Hollenbach took another on fourth down, though there was little he could do. Johnson again made it to the quarterback, leaving Hollenbach clutching his ribs and the Terps to think about what could have been.

The nine-point lead — built gradually over the first three quarters — hinted at the possibility of Maryland’s first road upset of a ranked foe since Friedgen’s first team upended Georgia Tech in 2001, a game that catapulted the Terps toward an ACC title.

When Josh Wilson answered Calvin Johnson’s touchdown on the opening drive by zig-zagging around Yellow Jackets defenders for a 100-yard return, the first kickoff return Maryland has returned for a score since Lewis Sanders against Western Carolina in 1999, it ensured the Terps wouldn’t simply endure a redux of their blowout loss at West Virginia last month.

When Hollenbach connected with Joey Haynos for a 3-yard score to make it 17-7 in the second quarter, it showed the Terps wouldn’t fold after a solid quarter. And when kicker Dan Ennis made the last of his three field goals late in the third quarter, it put Maryland up 23-14, and victory seemed imminent.

Instead, the Yellow Jackets snatched it away, mixing an efficient rushing game with a knack for accepting the Terps’ generosity. Georgia Tech quarterback Reggie Ball capped a seven-play drive when he rolled left, then scampered into the end zone from 8 yards out to make it 23-21.

Maryland had its chance to respond, but Lance Ball botched an exchange from Hollenbach on the next play from scrimmage. Moments later, Georgia Tech’s Tashard Choice rumbled 15 yards for the go-ahead score, a particularly painful portion of the Yellow Jackets’ 229 rushing yards that helped postpone the Terps’ elusive breakthrough moment.

“It hurts a lot,” Friedgen said. “The fact that we talk about it and it’s there. I thought the defense would respond when we turned the ball over, and [two] plays they run the ball right down our throat for a touchdown.”

Nevertheless, Maryland did create an opportunity for itself in the final minutes — even after Hollenbach was picked off on the next drive. And though the rally fell short, it provided another glimmer of progress for a team that proved it will not be a pushover this season.

“Previous games, everybody talked about how sloppy they were, but they were wins,” linebacker Wesley Jefferson said. “Personally, I thought we played better today than in the wins, but I’d rather win.”


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