COLLEGE PARK — The most amazing thing about Maryland's lopsided loss to Georgia Tech on Saturday was that it actually meant something.
The Terrapins, for all the misfortune that has befallen them over the course of this star-crossed season, are still mathematically alive for a postseason bid, but they needed to beat the struggling Yellow Jackets just to have any realistic hope of sneaking past one of their last three opponents and into one of the lesser bowl games.
That was never going to happen, of course, after the Terps used up all four of their quarterbacks and let go of two razor-close games against North Carolina State and Boston College that would have made them bowl eligible already. They've run plum out of luck, a fact that had become painfully obvious well before Georgia Tech took a 20-point lead into the locker room at halftime.
If Terps coach Randy Edsall could have found another seven points lying around in those previous two games, the Terps would have taken the field Saturday with a 6-2 record, and he would have looked like an ACC Coach of Year candidate, but that's just sports bar banter now. This season was threatening to turn ugly either way.
When was the last time a college team lost four starting quarterbacks to season-ending injuries in the first eight games of the season? It has probably happened at some point in the last century, but nobody seems to remember — and it's something Maryland fans already want to forget.
It's true that the Terps' four losses prior to Saturday's were by a total of just 18 points, but when you have to pull a freshman linebacker off the defensive roster to play quarterback at this level, the time for the shoulda-woulda-couldas has probably passed.
Emergency starter Shawn Petty, who was a pretty good high school quarterback at Eleanor Roosevelt in Greenbelt, didn't embarrass himself. He was tentative at the start and made the mistakes you would expect a young kid to make right after being thrown into that situation, but he kept his cool and threw a couple of touchdown passes in the second half to flashy freshman Stefon Diggs. Not too bad for a guy who had seven practice sessions to get ready to play quarterback at the Division I level.
The coaching staff worked hard to create a gameplan he could handle, implementing a direct snap option with running back Wes Brown that the team dubbed the "Wild Crab," but — in keeping with the predominant theme of this difficult season — Brown went down in the second half with an ankle injury.
No doubt, Petty will be more comfortable with this game and another week of practice under his belt, but it's fair to wonder how this team is going to look on the road at No. 10 Clemson next week after getting schooled by a Tech squad that came into Byrd Stadium with just three victories.
It doesn't get any easier after that. The next time the Terps take the field in front of the home crowd will be Nov. 17 against No. 9 Florida State. They close out the regular season at North Carolina, and the odds of them winning two of their last three games to become bowl eligible appear to be somewhere between slim and Powerball.
Edsall, as always, put on his most positive face after the game when he was asked about the challenge of keeping a young team focused and moving forward after all that has happened to undermine what could have been a very upbeat season.
"I think we've got a really good group and I just told them there in the locker room after the game, I said, 'Guys, we've just got to all stick together," Edsall said. "There are going to be great things that are going to happen here. We all want them to happen today or tomorrow, but again, what we have to do is just deal with the situation at hand and all we can do and come here each and every day and work as hard as we can to get better."
The Terps had been able to stay competitive because of their solid defense, but even that seemed to bend under the pressure that has been placed on the decimated offensive unit. Edsall acknowledged that, but he refuses to view this season as a lost cause.
"There are a lot of things that are happening that are very, very positive," Edsall said. "We just haven't been able to string enough of them together to get a few more wins when we were close, but this group is a tight-knit group. It's a group that feels good about each other. They like being around each other. When you have that kind of chemistry, camaraderie and fellowship, you're going to be OK."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.