Ralph Friedgen wasn’t the first sports guy to say, “I’d rather be lucky than good” - I think it was Lefty Gomez, the old Yankees pitcher - but the Fridge just might be uttering those words to his bathroom mirror this morning.
His Terrapins were lucky to beat a tough Clemson team 24-21 Saturday at Byrd Stadium, but they also were pretty good when it counted and certainly more so than while going 1-3 in their mostly sad previous efforts.
True, the Terps got a lot of breaks from an opponent whose supposedly potent offense coughed and sputtered like an ancient Yugo while amassing merely 133 yards over the last three quarters.
And every Maryland fan in the crowd of 46,243 must have held his or her breath in the fourth quarter, when Clemson kicker Richard Jackson missed two potential game-tying field goals in the final four minutes.
Yet there was no question that the Terps deserved this welcome win in their first ACC game. Their defense contained Clemson’s two speedy offensive threats, running back C.J. Spiller and wideout Jacoby Ford, from scrimmage about as well as anybody will this season. And Maryland refused to buckle up or knuckle under when the Tigers jumped to early leads of 10-0 and 13-3.
How important was this victory for the ACC’s youngest team? For one thing, Friedgen was greeted by loud applause from nearby fans when he appeared for his postgame press conference. And for another, the Fridge was practically jumping for joy himself - no mean feat for a man who weighs around 300.
“Well, we sure don’t make it easy, do we?” Friedgen said in an obviously rhetorical question. “I was praying that we’d find a way to win. I love these guys. I like being around them. … Somebody asked me if this game was tough on me. I said, ‘Not as tough as the last two.’ ”
The last two, in case you’ve forgotten, were discouraging home losses to Middle Tennessee and Rutgers. In College Park and environs, speculation was growing that Friedgen might step down before 2012, when he is scheduled to hand off the program to assistant head coach James Franklin. Worse yet, people like me were starting to compare the Terps to the Redskins in terms of utter futility.
O, ye of little faith.
Through their first four games, the Terps committed 13 turnovers. They did better Saturday, losing only one of four fumbles. Meanwhile, quarterback Chris Turner was avoiding interceptions while completing 19 of 26 passes for 215 yards and touchdowns of 29 yards to super-duper wide receiver Torrey Smith and 4 yards to Ronnie Tyler. And when running back Davin Meggett slithered 1 yard for a TD with 4:27 left in the third quarter, the Terps seemed solidly in control with a 24-13 lead.
That impression lasted just 16 seconds, the amount of time that elapsed on the clock as Spiller raced 92 yards to score with the kickoff. Then Maryland and its fans had to endure a wild and woolly fourth quarter that produced no points but plenty of shattered nerves.
After recovering a fumble by the other team - there’s a switch for you - the Terps failed to cash in. A bit later, they uncharacteristically gambled on fourth-and-inches from their 29 only to see Turner buried on a keeper.
That left it up to the defense, which more than did the job. Jackson missed a 48-yard field goal to end that Clemson threat. Later, Meggett fumbled the ball over to Clemson at the Maryland 31, but that opportunity ended with Jackson flubbing another 48-yarder.
The Terps’ offense went nowhere with freshman running back Gary Douglas subbing for the benched Meggett, and Clemson got one more shot. The Tigers moved to Maryland’s 28 and lined up for a 56-yard attempt by the undaunted Jackson. But a review showed that quarterback Kyle Parker had lost a fumble on the previous play, and the game ended without the kicker getting a chance to redeem himself.
Lucky? Sure. Good? Well, not yet but getting better. Ahead for the Terps lie a game at Wake Forest on Saturday and six more ACC tests in which it would seem advisable to be both.
“I’m a competitor - I like winning,” Friedgen said somewhat unnecessarily. It remains to be seen how much more of it he’ll experience this fall.