COLLEGE PARK -- The decline of the Maryland secondary down the stretch this season reached its low point Saturday at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Fla.
It occurred early in the third quarter of a 49-10 loss to No. 1 Florida State, when Peter Warrick sliced over the middle and was wide-open for a 26-yard touchdown pass from Chris Weinke that made the score 35-3 and rendered the remaining 26 minutes virtually meaningless.
Warrick was so caught up in the moment that he ran straight to the stands and leaped up a wall to soak in congratulations from some of the 80,340 at the game.
While Warrick celebrated that no one was within 10 yards of him and drew a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, Maryland strong safety Rod Littles searched aimlessly for any clue as to what had gone wrong.
"Florida State had run a lot of corner routes, and Rod expected them to break out again," Maryland coach Ron Vanderlinden said. "But what happened was he [Warrick] broke out and then turned it in on a post cut, and Rod was caught expecting a corner route. They set that thing up nicely."
By the time Warrick, Weinke and the powerful Seminoles were finished with the Terps' secondary, they had 373 passing yards. Weinke threw six touchdown passes, including three to Warrick.
Vanderlinden had to be wondering how much he had accomplished in the five hours he spent with the defense the Monday before the Florida State game.
The third-year coach has thrown nickel and dime packages at opponents over the past five weeks. He has even used gifted outside linebacker Aaron Thompson as a safety in nickel packages.
Lewis Sanders, Bryn Boggs and Randall Jones have lined up at safety in nickel defenses throughout the season.
"We're still trying to get the right players in the right positions," Vanderlinden said. "We can play better in the secondary, and we will play better in the secondary. That route run by Warrick last week takes 3.4 seconds to throw and is such a tough route to defend. Part of the issue is we have to get better at rushing the quarterback."
If the defense doesn't improve tomorrow against Virginia (6-4, 4-3 ACC) in a noon game at Byrd Stadium, the Terps (5-5, 2-5) could have a long winter to think about how they turned a 4-1 dream season into a 5-6 nightmare.
One of the major reasons for the lack of a strong pass rush has been the poor performance of 6-foot-5, 285-pound junior defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, who has been replaced by sophomore Charles Hill in the starting lineup.
Also, sophomore inside linebackers Marlon Moore and Kevin Bishop replaced Eric Barton and Kendall Ogle, who were both NFL draft picks. Bishop's season ended after nine games with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
However, the secondary has been the main disappointment.
The perfect 1999 secondary would have featured cornerback Sanders (6-1, 200) and strong safety Tony Jackson (6-1, 202), along with cornerback Tony Okanlawon (5-11, 180) and free safety Jones (6-2, 212).
Only Sanders played the entire season, and opposing teams soon learned to stay away from him.
The most devastating injury for Maryland was Jackson's broken left ankle, incurred early in the third quarter against Temple.
Another major blow to the secondary was Okanlawon's slow recovery from a pulled hamstring suffered in preseason practice.
It took him eight games to regain the form he displayed last season as a freshman.
Jones wasn't switched from quarterback to safety until after the first game, and he didn't see any significant playing time until the sixth game against Clemson.
NOTE: Mount St. Joseph's Rob Abiamiri, a 6-2, 200-pound tight end and defensive back, announced his oral commitment to a full scholarship at Maryland. He finished the year with 28 receptions for 779 yards and eight touchdowns.