COLLEGE PARK -- Was there anyone at Byrd Stadium who didn't consider the scenario?
Outplayed by Virginia for much of the game, Maryland crept within a field goal with three minutes left on its third big special teams play. The Terps' defense would get the ball back, Scott Milanovich would get the offense going, and Maryland would become the latest team to catch Virginia on a miracle finish, and lock up a bowl berth to boot.
Reality, however, wasn't quite as pleasant for the Terps and most of the 45,720 at Byrd Stadium.
No. 14 Virginia ran out the last 3:17 without any serious difficulty yesterday, and held on for a 21-18 victory. The Cavaliers (8-3, 7-1) clinched a share of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship, and the Terps (6-4, 4-3) were kept waiting for a breakthrough win.
It was Maryland's 18th straight loss to a ranked opponent, and the last game at Byrd Stadium for the most prolific pass-and-catch combination in school history was one Scott Milanovich and Jermaine Lewis would like to forget.
"I'm more disappointed about the loss hurting our bowl chances," Milanovich said. "That's what makes it rough. We had an opportunity to lock up a bowl bid. We were so close, but we just couldn't make it happen."
Maryland's touchdown drives went just 16 and 5 yards after special teams turnarounds, as the Cavaliers limited the Terps to 229 yards, their second-lowest total of this up-and-down season.
In need of seven catches to become the all-time ACC leader, Lewis nearly played as much I-back as receiver. He suffered a hip pointer on his only catch, an outside screen for 1 yard with five minutes left in the third quarter, and didn't play again. Milanovich was limited to 144 yards passing, a career low in games he's started and finished, and was intercepted a career-high four times.
"Without question, the interceptions were the difference," said Virginia coach George Welsh.
The Cavaliers had exorcised some of their last-play demons -- they lost at the end at Michigan and Texas -- in a 33-28 win over Florida State nine days earlier, when the Seminoles came up just shy of the goal line on the last play.
Special teams were the difference in that upset, but this time, Virginia's punting and kick return units nearly cost it the game.
Maryland had an 11-0 lead before Virginia ran an offensive play. The Terps drove 69 yards at the start to Joe O'Donnell's 37-yard field goal, and no Cavalier touched the ensuing wind-blown kickoff, which Maryland freshman Paul Jackson recovered at the 16. Seven plays later, Milanovich bootlegged in from the 1.
With 3:21 to go in the game, senior captain Richard Roberts blocked Will Brice's punt, and Maryland recovered at the Cavaliers' 5. Buddy Rodgers scored four seconds later, but Virginia ground out the remaining 3:17, showing that its dominance of the previous 44 minutes was no fluke.
In between Maryland's turnover-fueled touchdowns, Virginia scored 21 unanswered points and the Terps had eight first downs to show for 10 possessions.
Virginia's defense always seemed to know what was coming. After a flea-flicker on the game's second play, the 2-week-old I-formation meant run. The run-and-shoot meant pass, and slot receiver Geroy Simon, who had six catches for 74 yards, was the only Terp to get open consistently.
"They had some tendencies, and we played to that," Virginia defensive coordinator Rick Lantz said.
"I don't know what else we could have done," Milanovich said. "We certainly wouldn't have been able to get any yards rushing without the I-back. Being in the run-and-shoot gives us a better chance to pass. It might be predictable, but it gave us our best chance to win."
Maryland got 78 yards rushing from Rodgers, but Lewis' eight carries netted 2 yards. Virginia, conversely, got big games from both of its tailbacks, as Tiki Barber had 116 yards and Kevin Brooks 103.
Rafael Garcia's 22-yard field goal early in the second quarter followed a 19-yard punt by Milanovich. After his first interception, the Cavaliers drove 47 yards for a TD and an 11-11 halftime tie.
Maryland began the third quarter with another gift from Virginia's kick return team that started the Terps near midfield, but Milanovich's off-balance toss was intercepted in the end zone by safety Paul London, and the game turned on that turnover. Brooks gained 68 yards on the ensuing 80-yard drive that put the Cavaliers ahead for good.
Garcia's 41-yard field goal with 9:41 to go proved to be the margin of victory, and it was set up by cornerback Joe Crocker's interception and 10-yard return to the Terps' 35-yard line.
Milanovich was picked off again with 6:38 left, but he had gotten the Terps to the Cavaliers' 32-yard line, so there was hope after Roberts' block and Rodgers' touchdown. The Maryland defense had limited Virginia to 269 yards at that point, but the Terps never got the ball back, as Barber got two first downs and 46 yards on seven carries that killed the clock.
Virginia wants to represent the ACC in the Alliance, but that spot probably will go to Florida State, where Maryland finishes the regular season next Saturday.
Even the out-of-town scoreboard was depressing, as Georgia Tech staved off bowl elimination and climbed above the Terps in the ACC standings with a comeback win over N.C. State. The Yellow Jackets are the main competition for the ACC's berth in the Carquest Bowl, and the Terps may be begging for a spot in the Independence or Liberty.
"I just hope they [bowl officials] view this team as being worthy of postseason play," coach Mark Duffner said.