ORLANDO, Fla. — ORLANDO, Fla.-- --It has been a while since we'd had an "I-was-there" moment quite like this one - the kind of play you not only find yourself talking about the next day, but also reminiscing about years later.
Sam Hollenbach, Maryland's goldenboy quarterback who's got a double major in mechanical engineering and walking old ladies across the street, spotted his sprinting receiver and cocked his arm back, hoisting behind his right ear his entire college career.
"I thought I was watching Elway," Terps coach Ralph Friedgen would say later.
His arm flung forward and you'd swear that ball floated in slow motion. For a brief moment, babies stopped crying. Opera music played. Young couples held hands and cooed.
Down below, racing along the sideline was a redshirt freshman named Darrius Heyward-Bey. For 46 yards, he never broke stride and by the time he even thought to look up, the ball dropped from the sky and found his hands. It was Willie Mays in a football uniform, reaching the end zone in the Champs Sports Bowl.
"That might have been the best long throw I've ever seen you throw in my life," Friedgen told his quarterback after the game, an emotional and momentous 24-7 Terps win over Purdue.
The senior connecting with the freshman. The torch passing in poetic fashion before a nationwide prime-time TV audience.
Sure, the touchdown was important - it gave the Terps a comfy 21-0 lead - but it was the symbolism of the whole thing that really reverberates today.
Hollenbach has been an important figure for the Maryland program. As quarterbacks tend to, Hollenbach represented his team in so many fashions. He used what he had (heart and drive) to make up for what he didn't (let's not go there right now).
Heyward-Bey, quick, exciting and young, took that torch and will return next year to lead a team that should have more talent and would be fortunate to have as much character.
Hollenbach finishes his career with a bowl win. Heyward-Bey starts his with one - and a pretty impressive one at that. After the Terps botched their shot at reaching the Atlantic Coast Conference title game last month, thumping Purdue was the best possible way to finish the season. It was like watching a rock band bungle its way through a sloppy set and then return for an encore that has your ear drums begging for more.
Credit certainly goes to a slow, uninspired Boilermakers defense, but you have to acknowledge a Terps offense that waited until the postseason to put together its most complete and impressive performance of the season - from Hollenbach and Heyward-Bey to Lance Ball in the backfield and coach Friedgen wearing the headset.
Last night the Terps barely looked like the Terps - at least the ones we watched in 12 previous games. In their eight previous wins, you never left the stadium thinking that Maryland was a dominant team that played to its potential for four quarters. They were ho-hum against lesser teams and gung-ho against better ones.
In fact, there was no making sense out of most of the season, which made last night's win especially easy to digest. There were no doubts this time. They moved the ball on the ground. They controlled the clock by a 2-1 margin. The defense kept the Boilermakers on their own side of the field. And Hollenbach, who was named the game's Most Valuable Player, played like we'd rarely seen him before.
"I couldn't think of a better way [to finish]," he said.
Friedgen pointed out that the Terps faced several defensive alignments that were unlike anything they'd seen on film. It was Hollenbach who kept adjusting, tweaking when needed and executing plays that the Terps had barely practiced.
"Best game ever," Heyward-Bey said of his quarterback.
For the players in the locker room to the spirited fans who braved a sunny Florida winter, we saw what a Maryland team can do when it plays both as hard as it can and as well as it can, a simple feat that Friedgen has been waiting three years to see.
There are subtle wrinkles on the timeline when you can sense the shift - the marked change in the ebb and flow of success and good fortune. Regardless of the season's low points, the unimpressive team stats or the many obstacles that popped up along the way, the guess here is that for the next several months, these young Terps will live, breathe and eat the momentum they carried out of the Citrus Bowl Stadium last night.
"It's passing down to us," Heyward-Bey said.
While it's a satisfying final bite for a deserving senior like Hollenbach, for the young players - the 16 starters who are expected to return next season - winning the Champs Sports Bowl only whets their appetite. It sets a new standard for a program that this year was relieved to simply receive a bowl invite, coming off a pair of sub-.500 seasons.
And at its very best moment, we saw what ultimately could prove to be the bridge - Hollenbach connecting with Heyward-Bey. A senior ending his career on a high. And a freshman beginning his on one. A proud ending and a humble beginning.