BOISE, Idaho | Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen often speaks of the joy he receives from witnessing the growth of the players who pass through his program.
The ebullient center who sprints everywhere during practice. The methodical defensive lineman who arrived a semester early and became a four-year fixture. The three walk-ons who began their careers at lower levels, only to start at times for the Terrapins. The erstwhile starting quarterback who persevered through five not-always-easy seasons.
They and more than two dozen others made up Maryland’s 31-man senior class, by far the largest in Friedgen’s eight seasons. It was a group expected to lend the Terps their best opportunity in years to win an ACC title. Instead, for all of their travails, they close their journey Tuesday afternoon in the Humanitarian Bowl against Nevada, far from both home and warm weather.
But it still is a last chance, a parting shot to leave Maryland (7-5) with an upbeat memory rather than a demoralizing losing streak.
“I would love to see this class go out 8-5,” Friedgen said. “I’d be disappointed the other way. I really would. They’ve contributed so much to our football program. They’re just wonderful kids, and I really thought we had a legitimate shot at winning this thing.”
Just six weeks ago, the ACC title was a possibility. But two losses to close out the regular season removed the shine from a 7-3 start, and the shaky economy’s influence on bowls emphasizing schools with hordes of traveling fans (Clemson) and those in geographic proximity (Florida State and North Carolina) sent the Terps tumbling.
They landed in Boise, minus their defensive coordinator and special teams coordinator. It will be an important day, especially for interim defensive coordinator Al Seamonson, whose unit will attempt to contain the nation’s No. 2 rushing attack.
In some ways, a piece of Maryland’s legacy will be determined against the Wolf Pack (7-5). The Terps are assured a winning record, unlike three of the past four years. Yet their four wins against ranked teams easily could wind up ignored with the inherent mediocrity of a 7-6 record.
“If we can get eight wins, that’s a pretty good season,” quarterback Chris Turner said. “Seven wins is very average, but eight, I think most people would look back on it and be happy about it.”
Friedgen included. He grew misty-eyed at times this month when reflecting on veterans, who are making their third straight bowl trip and whom he often described as “special.”
There was little question bowl practices functioned in some ways as a quasi-spring practice, an early plunge into 2009. But the priority remains collecting a final victory to improve morale through the drudgery of early morning winter workouts.
“Being 8-5 would be a pretty good season, and that would carry us into the offseason and would set an example for our younger players,” Friedgen said. “I’m a little more optimistic now, just watching them [practice after the bowl announcement]. I think we’ve made tremendous growth.”
Yet some of the improvement in the program came during the regular season as well. While the Terps’ most telling trait was their inconsistency and unpredictability - a tendency that baffled Friedgen along the way - they still can produce a modest two-game improvement from last season.
After all of their injuries, the 2007 Terps secured a bowl berth on the final day of the season. However, senior nose tackle Bemi Otulaja recalled the disappointment of watching Andrew Crummey, Joey Haynos and others trudge away from their last game with a 21-14 loss to Oregon State in the Emerald Bowl.
It’s a memory he - and 30 other teammates - don’t wish to share on their way out of the program.
“It would mean the world to us,” Otulaja said. “We can end on a good note and say that at least we didn’t end with a loss. But if you fall to this team, you have no other chances. It’s kind of like you blew it. It’s like the dagger is already in your heart and somebody twisted it in a 360.
“It would be devastating to lose with 31 seniors after everything we’ve been through and everything that we’ve shared.”