COLLEGE PARK -- When the college football season started, University of Maryland players talked about winning seasons, Atlantic Coast Conference championships and bowl games.
But as this season unfolds with mounting losses, the goals have melted away. Come New Year's Day, the Terps will be home along with millions of others watching the Sugar, Cotton, Orange, Rose, Citrus and Fiesta bowls decide the final national rankings.
But as far as the Terps (2-6) are concerned, they're still in a bowl. It comes in two days, when Maryland plays No. 9 Penn State (7-2) at Memorial Stadium (1:30 p.m.).
"We're not going to a real one, so this is our bowl game," said Jim Sandwisch, Maryland's senior starting quarterback. "We have nothing to lose and a lot to gain. We'll be ready to play. Everybody knows this is Penn State."
This is Maryland's last chance to salvage something out of a season that has been disappointing after last year's 6-5-1 record and a 34-34 tie to Louisiana Tech in the Poulan/Weed Eater Independence Bowl, Maryland's first bowl appearance since 1985.
Since then, Maryland hasn't come close to matching last year's success. The Terps have been blown out by West Virginia, 37-7; Georgia Tech, 34-10; and North Carolina, 24-0. Injuries have forced four starters out for the season, and Monday three defensive starters were declared academically ineligible for the three remaining games.
Maryland has the worst offense (283.3 yards per game) in the ACC and is next to last in the league in total defense (allowing 405.5 yards per game).
"A win over Penn State doesn't salvage the whole season, but it would sure bring up our spirits," said Ron Reagan, Maryland's junior strong safety. "A win gives us something to build on."
Junior linebacker Dave Marrone said: "A win would be something special, give us incentive for the two games afterward and for next year. I think everybody is excited."
But emotion alone won't win this game. Penn State is favored by 28 points, the most in recent years. Plus, the Nittany Lions haven't lost to Maryland since 1961, though the Terps managed a 13-13 tie in 1989 at Memorial Stadium.
On paper, the Terps don't match up. This is a typical Penn State team, one loaded with three outstanding tailbacks in Richie Anderson (83 carries, 380 yards), Gerry Collins (85, 334), Shelly Hammonds (54, 322) and a big fullback named Sam Gash (65, 307).
The Nittany Lions can throw, too. Senior quarterback Tony Sacca has completed 131 of 227 passes for 1,977 yards and 17 touchdowns, most of those to wide receiver Terry Smith, who has 45 receptions for 647 yards and eight touchdowns.
Defensively, Penn State is allowing 267.3 yards and 14.1 points per game.
"They're one of the few teams that don't have a nickel defense," said Maryland coach Joe Krivak. "They cover wide receivers with their linebackers."
Maryland does have three things working in its favor. The Terps have traditionally played Penn State close, and the Terps play well at Memorial Stadium. Maryland will also try to catch Penn State, which did not play last week, looking ahead to next Saturday's game against No. 5 Notre Dame.