COLLEGE PARK-- --The players sported black jerseys, and the rowdy student section was similarly decked out in dark duds. On a black summer night, we sure could have used a fiery, burning couch. Not as a celebratory prop, though, and not as the unofficial trophy for the West Virginia-Maryland football series.
As the dejected crowd spilled out of the Byrd Stadium into the dark night, the Terps could have used a guiding light, something to help them see clearly why they can reel off victories against forgettable teams and yet once again end up on the wrong side of a lopsided score against a formidable one.
After opening the season with a pair of welcome mats - Villanova and Florida International - last night provided the Terps their first measuring stick of the season: for them, the first chance to see how good or bad they might really be, and for the rest of us, the opportunity to assess whether our preseason expectations should be tweaked.
While last night's 31-14 loss might have revealed shortcomings and might have cemented some fears, even if furniture was burning back in Morgantown, W.Va., this one didn't extinguish the Terps' spirits.
When you're playing a top-five team and you're perceived as a heavy underdog, the benefits - win or lose - typically outweigh the pitfalls. Since coaches Ralph Friedgen and Rich Rodriguez took over their respective programs more than seven years ago, the latter has successfully distinguished himself from the former - at least in recent seasons. A 17-point loss doesn't pinpoint the Terps' spot on the national map; it merely lets them know that after three weeks, they're somewhere between West Virginia and Florida International.
"We lost to a good football team and probably could have played better," Friedgen said. "But I'm not discouraged at all."
Friedgen's post-game demeanor was nothing like the frustration he exhibited a year earlier, when the Mountaineers were peeling the Terps off the bottom of their cleats.
We learned a year ago that the Terps can rebound from a big West Virginia loss, but where do you start this year? With a defense that gave up more 300 rushing yards to the Mountaineers for the third year in a row? With a quarterback who hasn't inspired much hope in fans and didn't throw his first touchdown pass of the season until the final minutes of the third game? Or with the coach who moonlights as the offensive coordinator, whose play-calling last night killed the Terps' momentum, and who conceded later that he must "do a better job as a coach, do some things better myself."
Despite the difference on the scoreboard, Terps fans must have found a bit of relief knowing it could have been much worse. In the opening seconds, it looked as if the Terps could be broaching something eerily similar to last year's beating. In Morgantown, Maryland fell behind 28-0 in the first quarter and had given up 38 points at the half.
Last night, quarterback Jordan Steffy fumbled the first snap on the Terps' first possession. The Mountaineers scored two plays later, and somewhere, TV executives must have been debating slapping a parental-advisory warning on the remainder of the broadcast.
But the Terps didn't buckle. In fact, they put together a very good quarter of football, and riding the legs of talented tailback Keon Lattimore, the Terps had it tied at 7 after 15 minutes - a far cry from last year's early struggles.
Though they didn't allow West Virginia to run away until late, the Terps couldn't match that first-quarter effort. Steffy started the game completing his first four passes but was just 2-for-6 for 3 yards in the second quarter and threw two interceptions. (He had just 12 passing yards combined in the second and third quarters.)
And after such a strong opening quarter - 50 yards on 11 carries - Lattimore didn't have a carry in the second, and wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey didn't have a catch. If those two aren't involved in the offense, then odds are, the Maryland offense isn't involved in the game.
As the Terps enter a brutal stretch of the schedule - which includes defending Atlantic Coast Conference champs Wake Forest next week, followed by games against ranked opponents in three of the next four weeks - the loss last night doesn't need to linger in a bad way. Last year's drubbing prompted many knee-jerk observers - including this knee-jerky sportswriter - to prematurely predict doom and gloom.
Last night's performance against an even better West Virginia team shouldn't cause any such dire forecasts.
Even though the Terps were at home this time, there were just enough bright spots early on to expect the Terps to be competitive in the vulnerable ACC Atlantic Division. But they must play a complete game.
If they didn't know already, a good start is nice, but it's how you finish that matters. That lesson applies to the season as well.
Those unimpressive two wins early in the schedule mean little.
As they did last year, the Terps should take meaning from the Mountaineer loss and carry some newly learned lessons into a stretch of schedule that's as tough as you'll find in college football.