- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 24, 2006

It didn’t seem like Maryland’s football team would learn too much from its nonconference home schedule when the season kicked off just more than three weeks ago.

William & Mary, Middle Tennessee and Florida International hardly seemed like a group that would test the Terrapins. And really, how much would likely victories over a hodgepodge of ampersands, directional designations and schools seemingly named for airports reveal about a team?

It could prove to be very little, but one thing seems very clear after another closer-than-anticipated victory: These days, just about every team Maryland faces possesses more than a modicum of danger.

In another sluggish performance, the Terps slogged their way to a 14-10 victory over Florida International at Byrd Stadium, a tight-wire act that drew a smattering of boos from the remnants of a crowd of 45,317 in the final minutes and didn’t exactly assuage concerns about the team as it heads into its only bye week of the season.

“If tonight was a practice, we’d still be out there running plays because coach [Ralph] Friedgen is an offensive guy and tonight was not an offensive night,” quarterback Sam Hollenbach said. “We just had too many mistakes.”

It wasn’t that a program that had lost its first three games by a combined seven points caught the Terps (3-1) off guard. The Terps dutifully spoke all week of the problems the Golden Panthers (0-4), in their first year as a bowl-eligible Division I-A team, could pose as Maryland tried to revive its spirits after a nationally televised beating at West Virginia.

Instead, for whatever reason, Maryland never seemed fully engaged last night, particularly on offense.

Disinterested is too harsh a description, lethargic probably a tad kind. Florida International played a part, too, moving defenders around and blitzing relentlessly to confound the Terps.

Whatever it was, the Terps can ill-afford similar performances when conference play commences Oct. 7 at Georgia Tech.

“It was one of those nights where we just couldn’t make a play,” Friedgen said. “We had a guy open and we couldn’t hit him. If we hit him, he dropped it. We miss a block here, we get a holding penalty [there]. It was just two steps forward and three steps back.”

A priority in the coming fortnight will no doubt be improving the protection of Hollenbach. The senior, who was hurried and drilled by an unrelenting Panthers defense throughout the evening, absorbed three sacks though it seemed like more.

It was a wonder not only that Hollenbach managed to complete 17 of 30 passes for 158 yards, two touchdowns and an interception — many of those tosses under pressure to his running backs — but that he remained standing after absorbing such a pounding.

Just as stunning was Florida International pulling within 14-10 on an early fourth-quarter field goal, just four plays after cornerback Josh Wilson dragged down A’mod Ned at the Maryland 5 after a 52-yard rush.

“That was a great effort play,” Friedgen said. “That probably saved the game for us.”

It wouldn’t have needed to be if Maryland had moved the ball with any efficiency throughout the night. The Terps’ offense almost put the game away before stalling, and the team held on only when safety Christian Varner intercepted a last-ditch pass and celebrated as if Maryland has stunned a top-10 team with a mix of apparent glee and relief.

“If we want to win against top teams, the better teams, we’re just going to have to pick it up,” junior linebacker Wesley Jefferson said. “Nothing against Florida International. A lot of teams in the ACC and a lot of teams period have been getting beat by the smaller teams. N.C. State, Virginia, even Florida State had a problem with Troy. We just have to continue to get better.”

A tight game didn’t seem likely when senior tailback Josh Allen caught a 14-yard pass in the flat and eluded tacklers on his way to the end zone in the first quarter. It was Allen’s first touchdown since he suffered a devastating knee injury in the 2004 season finale that forced him to redshirt last season.

The lead didn’t last, in part because of the Terps’ twin troubles of turnovers and tackling. Hollenbach threw an interception while looking for Isaiah Williams in the end zone to halt a promising drive in the second quarter.

Two plays later, lumbering tight end Samuel Smith brushed aside safety Marcus Wimbush’s attempted tackle on his way to an 89-yard touchdown reception, the longest in Florida International’s five-year history.

The Terps took the lead after Danny Oquendo’s 37-yard punt return set up a short field. Five plays later, Hollenbach found Williams in the front left corner of the end zone with 10 seconds left before halftime.

That proved to be the winning score, as well as Maryland’s final one of the night. That no doubt vexed a relieved Friedgen, who has two weeks to regroup the Terps after a too-close-for-comfort victory.

“I’d probably be more frustrated if we lost,” Friedgen said. “When you can win, that’s the bottom line to me. I’d rather win ugly than lose looking good.”

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