COLLEGE PARK-- --In the final regular-season game of Maryland's football season, one by one, the real truths about this unpredictable Terps bunch finally made themselves known, from Sam Hollenbach's suspect throwing arm to the defensive line's habit of spreading like a Slinky to Ralph Friedgen's pained words.
And even as the answers to the season's biggest uncertainties became clear, fans filed out of Byrd Stadium last night with just one more question. No one was still asking whether the Terps deserved to play in the ACC championship game. They were wondering whether the players really wanted to.
This season has had more twists and turns than a scratched Chubby Checker record, but Friedgen left the post-game locker room and had no idea how his players could play so poorly in the game that counted most.
"I don't have an answer for that," linebacker Wesley Jefferson said after the Terps' 38-24 loss to Wake Forest. "I guess people were just thinking things would be given to us when that's not the case."
And now we know the exact difference between a possible Orange Bowl appearance and a third-place finish in the Atlantic Division - it's three interceptions, it's a defense that allows nearly 300 rushing yards, it's a group that didn't seem to know what exactly was on the line.
"It wasn't like we wanted to be there," Friedgen said.
Orange Bowl dreams were squeezed dry. Hopes for the Chick-fil-A or the Gator were passed off to other ACC teams. Last night's loss likely means the best the Terps can expect is an invite from the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, Fla., or the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn.
In the moments after the loss to the Demon Deacons, the prospects of playing in a lesser bowl sure felt like biting into a microwaveable steak after ordering filet mignon. But as players wake up this morning, they should remember that it wasn't long ago that the Terps faced the possibility of starving this bowl season.
Before the year, national prognosticators had the Terps pegged as a fourth- (The Sporting News) or fifth-place (Athlon) team in the Atlantic Division. Even just a few weeks ago, it would have taken a whole vat of Windex to peer into a crystal ball and clearly see that Maryland had any chance at the division title. The season could've ended with that drubbing at West Virginia in September or the loss at Georgia Tech in October.
Instead, the Terps found themselves with a shot at just their second conference title in the past two decades. The loss to the Demon Deacons was but another mile marker in what's been a strange and wild path to the bowl season, slightly less predictable and slightly more exciting than a Lemony Snicket story.
"It's a sad situation because we were so close and we fell just short," tackle Stephon Heyer said.
Last night, the stage was set about as perfectly as the Terps could've hoped. By virtue of Miami's win over Boston College two nights earlier, Maryland controlled its own destiny. The Terps were at home, where they entered the game 6-0 this season, and playing in front of the first sellout crowd of the year.
"The atmosphere was great. It was a perfect setting, perfect night," Hollenbach said. "Everything outside the game itself was perfect, couldn't have been any better."
It's never been a secret that Hollenbach could hurt the Terps as much as he could help them. For so much of the season, he played above his abilities, showing leadership and poise at key moments. His offensive production was down this year, but he was so much more dependable and accurate when it counted. Until last night.
Rather than hitting his receivers, Hollenbach used his arm in the first half to dig a big hole, one the Terps couldn't climb from.
Hollenbach had thrown just three interceptions in the Terps' eight wins this year. In the four games they lost, he tossed eight, including three last night.
Despite Hollenbach's early miscues, Maryland had a chance in the final quarter when Hollenbach inched his way toward redemption. He hit Isaiah Williams for a 48-yard reception that put the Terps on the Wake Forest 22-yard line. Four players later, the two hooked up again, and Williams' 5-yard touchdown catch cut the Demon Deacons' lead to 31-24.
The pressure switched to the Terps' defense, which should've worn green instead of red last night. For the 11th time in 12 games, Maryland's defensive unit allowed more yards than its offense could put on the board. Wake Forest moved with ease and precision down the field, and on 4th-and-goal from the 1, Rich Belton pushed his way into end zone to put the game out of reach.
Capping a season of high drama, this final act lacked suspense. There'd be no final twist, no late comeback or any chance to at least make it close. These Terps always seemed to either win them tight or lose them big. After that Georgia Tech loss last month, Maryland reeled off five straight wins by a total of just 13 points. The Terps then lost their final two of the season by a combined 36.
Make sense? Of course not. But not a lot has this season.
Rick Maese -- Points After
Steelers nemesis: In case he hasn't already done enough, Steve McNair can really endear himself to Ravens fans today. He has performed as well as just about any quarterback in the league against Pittsburgh. The numbers may not seem impressive (in 13 outings, he has averaged 188 yards and 1.3 touchdowns per game on 15-for-25 passing), but his teams have beat the Steelers 10 times.
Aiming high: You've got to smile at the way the Orioles do business. They covet the biggest names, but won't actually step forward with an offer. It's almost like the chess geek attending the school dance, standing against the wall and talking to his buddies about the prettiest girls on the dance floor.
Cold stove: It became clear a couple of weeks back that the Orioles weren't going to shake up their roster (or change their luck) with just a couple of big free-agent signings. Barring a risky trade, they're left to plug holes with the unimpressive names left on the market. More than likely, this might mean that the supposed windfall of Mid-Atlantic Sports Network money will go unspent. There's still a lot of time in the offseason, and the Orioles need to find a way to trick fans into thinking that they made a sincere effort to improve the ballclub.