COLLEGE PARK — The Maryland football team was hoping Saturday's game against Northwestern would be an elixir of sorts.
The Terps were coming off that ugly, ugly loss to Ohio State, but a victory over the Wildcats would improve their record to 4-2 before they had to head to another hostile stadium to play another top-10 Big Ten powerhouse.
Instead, what might have been a pleasant afternoon started with an unpleasant flurry of reports that athletic director Kevin Anderson (a) had been placed on administrative leave; (b) was about to be fired; or (c) all of the above.
And what looked early on like an uplifting performance by the Terps disintegrated into a disappointing loss to one of the teams they almost certainly needed to beat to play in a bowl game this season.
The Wildcats rebounded from an early deficit to score a 37-21 victory and even their record at 3-3 in a game they also needed to win to stay in reasonable bowl contention. For Northwestern, the Terps game came in the middle of a five-game span that already included losses to then-No. 10 Wisconsin and then-No. 4 Penn State with difficult matchups against Iowa and No. 21 Michigan State ahead.
So the Terps remained on a sharp downslope in this emotional roller-coaster ride of a football season. They have been bloodied in one manner or another in every game except their solid performance at Minnesota two weeks ago, but Saturday was something else altogether.
The game-day intrigue started early, with a local tweet at about noon that Anderson had been fired. That was followed by a flurry of retweets and peripheral speculation about his status that forced the university to put out the following statement on its @UMDRightNow Twitter feed:
"University Statement: Kevin Anderson is UMD Athletic Director. Media reports to the contrary are false."
Not that it really clarified anything. Anderson has not been seen around here for the past couple of weeks, which has created an information vacuum since no one in the university hierarchy seems willing to provide any clarity to the situation.
This appears to be one of those where-there's-smoke scenarios. If nothing is going on, it's fair to ask why Anderson didn't just swing by the press box Saturday afternoon, which he generally does during home football games.
Little is obvious here. Anderson's tenure as athletic director started with the controversial dismissal of popular football coach Ralph Friedgen in 2010 and the ill-fated hiring of Randy Edsall to replace him. But he made a solid choice when he brought in Mark Turgeon to replace legendary basketball coach Gary Williams and transformed the athletic department with the jump to the big-money Big Ten.
The basketball program has been successful and second-year coach DJ Durkin seems to be moving football in the right direction. That is, even though the uplifting season-opening victory over Texas was quickly counterbalanced by a string of devastating injuries that left the Terps without their top two quarterbacks and top pass rusher.
There was an opportunity to change that narrative a bit Saturday and the Terps took the early lead on a 12-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Max Bortenschlager to top receiver DJ Moore midway through the first quarter. The two hooked up again on a 52-yard touchdown to retake the lead in the second quarter, but the Wildcats answered with two quick touchdowns before halftime.
Maryland got close one more time in the second half, but the defense had no real answer for quarterback Clayton Thorson, who threw for 293 yards, or running back Justin Jackson, who rushed for 171 yards, scored twice and broke Northwestern's all-time career rushing record in the process.
Maybe there was some consolation in Moore's terrific individual performance (12 catches for 210 yards) or Bortenschlager's career-high three touchdown passes. But as darkness fell on Maryland Stadium on Saturday evening, there was nothing at the end of the stadium tunnel but an uncertain future for the football program and a lot of other unanswered questions.