- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 29, 2007

Christian Varner was inconsolable, uncharacteristically quiet as he assessed the aftermath of Maryland’s 31-24 overtime loss to Wake Forest hours after the Terrapins‘ meltdown was completed last weekend.

He didn’t want to talk, and he had no interest in watching any football when he returned to his Baltimore home the next day. About the only solace he could find was a 9:30 a.m. trip to church, a welcome distraction from an inexplicable loss.

He stayed for two services, a double dose of God the best available tonic for sorting through a crushing defeat that could linger for some time.

“All losses [stink], but that really hurt,” Varner said. “I couldn’t go to sleep. I dreamed about it. I analyzed the game over and over in my head trying to figure out what happen, like ‘What went wrong? What can we do different?’ ”

There is no useful answer other than to forget squandering a 21-point lead in the final 17 minutes of regulation. Of course, it is a far easier task to discuss than to perform.

After all, the Terps (2-2) know all about how one play can shift the direction of a season. A year ago, Maryland was 3-2 and down 20 points in the second half at Virginia before recovering a fumbled punt, scoring 28 unanswered points and igniting an improbable five-game winning streak.

Deep down, there must be worries Alphonso Smith’s 100-yard interception return last week might trigger the opposite reaction. And that’s what makes the early moments of today’s visit to No. 10 Rutgers (3-0) a potential linchpin to the rest of the season.

A win would obviously wash away a week’s worth of vexation, and a run-of-the-mill loss wouldn’t necessarily be a cause for alarm.

But a listless, lethargic start filled with unnecessary errors might be an sign of the state of the Terps and the direction of the season those in the program would not want to face.

“I think you might be right,” coach Ralph Friedgen said. “We’ll find out what we’re made of.”

For all of the ceaseless coach-speak about mental toughness, there might not be a more appropriate time to emphasize it than this week. Friedgen conceded after the loss there was nothing he could do to change the outcome, and defensive tackle Dre Moore said the Terps would have to put it out of their collective mind.

So how quickly did he put his advice into practice?

“I was over it,” Moore said. “It took, what, 45 minutes to an hour to fly up here? I was probably done with it by the time they were serving ice cream on the plane. We all had our chances out there Saturday to make plays and we came up short. I can’t let it distract me and take away from my preparation from this one.”

If cookies and cream or mint chocolate chip didn’t help the Terps move on, the prospect of seeing Rutgers tailback Ray Rice probably worked well. The junior has run for 431 yards and eight touchdowns, and will no doubt receive a heavy workload as the Scarlet Knights finally begin a tougher stretch of their schedule.

Maryland has contained potent rushing attacks from West Virginia and Wake Forest for at least a half for the last two games. With last week’s collapse still fresh, halting Rice would be vital for a strong start.

“We’ve got to come out hard, we’ve got to come out fast and we’ve got to come out and set the tone from the first play,” Varner said. “Us as leaders, guys like me, Erin [Henderson], Isaiah [Gardner], that’s big for us to do. That’s our job. We have to come out and set the tone so all the other guys are like ‘Oh, OK, that’s the kind of day it’s going to be.’ ”

Defensively, Rutgers ranked fifth in the nation in sacks a year ago and figured to have an imposing defensive line again this year. But the Scarlet Knights have seven sacks in three games, albeit all blowouts when it made little sense to apply extra pressure to the quarterback.

Maryland quarterback Jordan Steffy was dropped 15 times in the last three games. The junior was constantly harried by the Demon Deacons while left tackle Scott Burley missed much of the second half with an elbow bruise and a soft tissue injury. Burley seems likely to play, but the Terps can ill-afford Steffy to serve as a pass-rush pinata again.

“We’re getting after the passer pretty decently, but I really felt we were doing it at a fever pitch last year,” Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. “We’ll see if we can’t get that thing cooking a little more.”

Schiano’s outlook might seem a bit ominous for the Terps. But if ever there was a time when Maryland’s approach should look inward, it is now.

The Terps thought last week could be about atoning for a loss to Wake Forest that kept them out of the ACC title game. If it can’t move past last week’s loss, Maryland might soon be forced to pin a lot more on a setback against the Demon Deacons.

“They’re going to see the tape and they’re going to be like ‘Well, they folded. When they had to have it, they didn’t have it, plain and simple,’ ” Varner said. “We’re going to have to come out and show them we can have it when we want to. …

“We’ve been robbed again, and all because of our own selves. We don’t have anybody to blame. A real man takes responsibility when things happen. You know what? It’s our fault. We have to come back this week and use it as motivation. It’s up to us, plain and simple.”

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