COLLEGE PARK -- Possibly the best interpretation of Maryland's 14-10 win over Florida International last night came from the fickle fans, who aired their frustrations with boos, but tempered them with the cheers that typically accompany a home win.
A large portion of the upper deck was empty last night in Byrd Stadium, and a bulk of the student section had disappeared before the fourth quarter began -- and long before this game was truly over.
At the end of the night, the bottom line was that Maryland (3-1) accomplished its goal of starting the Atlantic Coast Conference season with a winning record, and is halfway to a bowl game. The Terrapins have a bye weekend before heading to Atlanta to face Georgia Tech on Oct. 7.
The underlying realization, though, that this team has yet to beat an opponent of the same or better caliber -- and has struggled at times against teams scheduled to pad the win column -- still looms.
So far this season Maryland has faltered in all three phases of the game, and last night was no exception. The Terps missed a field-goal attempt, the defense allowed a 52-yard run that led to a field goal and an 89-yard touchdown pass that tied the game. And the offense, well, it scored twice against an 0-4 team from the Sun Belt Conference.
"I'd rather win ugly," coach Ralph Friedgen said, "than lose looking good."
The game was at least interesting until the waning seconds, when Florida International quarterback Josh Padrick completed a 45-yard pass to Chandler Williams that landed the Golden Panthers on the Maryland 9-yard line and gave them one final opportunity at a comeback with one second on the clock. The final play of the game, though, was an interception by Christian Varner, and the Terps avoided an embarrassing loss.
"I told you they have a lot of good players and we'd be in a dog fight if we didn't come out to play," said Friedgen. "I'm happy with the win, but I think we can play better than we did. It was one of those nights we just couldn't make a play. ... It was two steps forward and three steps back."
Maryland quarterback Sam Hollenbach took a lot of the steps back, as he was sacked three times for a loss of 20 yards. In all, Florida International's defense made 10.5 tackles for a total loss of 31 yards. It was the second time the Terps were outgained in total offense but still won. Hollenbach struggled, completing 17 of 30 pass attempts for 158 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
"If tonight was a practice, we'd still be out there running plays," Hollenbach said. "Coach Friedgen is an offensive guy and tonight was not an offensive night. We had too many mistakes. I take a lot of that blame on my own shoulders."
Early in the second quarter, Hollenbach's pass intended for Isaiah Williams was intercepted in the end zone by defensive back Lionell Singleton, who returned it 13 yards. Two plays later, on second-and-12 from his own 11-yard line, Josh Padrick connected with 6-foot-3, 248-pound tight end Samuel Smith, who lumbered his way 89 yards for a game-tying touchdown, escaping the arms of safety Marcus Wimbush and outrunning Wesley Jefferson and J.J. Justice on his way.
It was the longest touchdown pass Maryland had allowed since 1999.
"We should be pretty good at stopping the run," said Friedgen, whose team allowed Florida International 89 net rushing yards and 310 yards of total offense. "He's a good player [Smith]. We didn't make the tackle and he's off and running. Other than that play and the last play, they really played well."
Maryland's defense, which had improved since falling behind 28-0 in the first quarter at West Virginia on Sept. 14, seemed to have been lulled to sleep in the fourth quarter when running back A'mod Ned took off for 52 yards and landed his team on the Terps' 5-yard line.
Cornerback Josh Wilson made the tackle and the play Friedgen said "probably saved the game." The drive ended in a 26-yard field goal by Dustin Rivest, and a narrow 14-10 Maryland edge.
"If we want to win against top teams and better teams, we're going to have to pick it up," Jefferson said. "Nothing against Florida International -- a lot of teams in the ACC, a lot of teams period, have been getting beat by the smaller teams. ... We just have to continue to work and get better."
Notes -- Donnie Woods was carted off the field with 4:24 left in the third quarter and taken to the trainers room for full-body cramping caused by dehydration. ... Jared Gaither missed some playing time with a bruised thumb but returned to the email@example.com
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A summary of Maryland's 14-10 win over Florida International:
What went right --Maryland running back Lance Ball led the team in rushing with 82 yards on 19 carries.
What went wrong -- The Terps allowed a winless team to stay in the game, and after leading the Atlantic Coast Conference with the fewest penalties, the Terps were penalized six times for 74 yards.
Defining moment --Maryland senior cornerback Josh Wilson wrapped his arms around the ankles of Florida International running back A'Mod Ned, who took off for 52 yards, and stopped him 5 yards short of a game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter. The drive ended in a field goal.
What it means -- Maryland accomplished its goal of a winning record in September, but struggled again against a lesser opponent.
Up next -- The Terps (3-1) have a bye week before opening their ACC schedule Oct. 7 at Georgia Tech (3-1, 1-0).
[Heather A. Dinich]