For Maryland, and football fans, bowl is step in right direction

After three years of pain, Maryland football fans just wanted a chance to party in the waning days of a season.

So smiles abounded in Annapolis on Friday as Terps supporters gathered to celebrate the program's first bowl appearance since 2010.

The Military Bowl might be far from the pinnacle of college football. And plenty of Maryland fans might retain misgivings about third-year coach Randy Edsall. But given the negativity that surrounded the program just a few months ago, as injuries threatened to derail another season, the late-December game against Marshall struck many as a perfectly fine holiday gift.

"I think it's a beginning," said Martin Green, a Maryland alumnus and donor from Rockville. "This is a positive step after all the struggles. It's our school. We're Maryland people, and we want our school to be successful."

The Terps lost a taut 31-20 contest to the visitors from West Virginia before an announced crowd of 30,163.

Just as the bowl game represented a new experience for many Maryland players, it was also a first-time event for Annapolis, which doesn't host many nationally televised sporting contests. City and business officials were anticipating at least a $1 million economic boost from the bowl game.

Despite some traffic difficulties, fans said they loved the setting at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, with its intimate sightlines and proximity to the state's population centers.

"This is definitely a cool place to have it," said Theresa Pines, a Maryland fan from Ellicott City.

Many compared the experience favorably to the 2010 Military Bowl in Washington, which Maryland won, 51-20, over East Carolina.

It would be hard to overstate how low Maryland football has fallen in the years after that victory, the last game coached by Edsall's predecessor, Ralph Friedgen.

Maryland won just six of 18 games in Edsall's first two seasons. The program faced a near-biblical plague of injuries to key players. Attendance at home games lagged as financial woes beset the university's athletic department.

The Terps jumped to a promising 5-1 start this season, but by early November, a three-game losing streak and another wave of injuries had fans dreading disaster. The calls for Edsall's hide ran hot and heavy on Internet message boards devoted to the team.

A gripping overtime victory at Virginia Tech arrested the collapse, however, and a commanding win at North Carolina State sealed Maryland's first bowl trip of the Edsall era. The promising ending has revived hopes for many fans as they look ahead to next season's move to the Big Ten conference.

"We're pretty excited about this," said Steve Leonard, a 1978 Maryland graduate from Davidsonville and a Terrapin Club board member. "It's been a couple of years since we've had this kind of chance to celebrate our team. When you think that we could go from two wins two years ago, to four wins last year and possibly eight wins this year, that's a pretty neat thing."

Leonard presided over a sprawling tailgate, where his college roommate, Brian Donhauser, dished out crab melts, clams casino and teriyaki chicken, washed down with cups of spiked apple cider.

The Terps backers shared space with green-clad Thundering Herd supporters, who filled the air with their familiar call-response chant: "We are … Marshall!"

Amid the steaming grills and icy chests of beer, many framed the bowl appearance as a mere stepping-stone to next season.

"We're going to finish on a high note and have our whole team back," said Greg Mentel, a 1985 Maryland graduate from Arlington, Va. "People want instant gratification, but it's all about the long haul. Edsall's a good coach."

That was not the consensus among all Maryland fans.

"If you're going to steal a coach from Connecticut, steal the basketball coach," barked Guy Andes of Crownsville, a Maryland season ticket holder.

The Military Bowl moved to Annapolis for 2013, after five years at RFK Stadium in Washington. The crowd, which fell about 3,000 short of a sellout, was the second largest in the bowl's six-year history.

Annapolis is used to hosting Navy home games. But a bowl brings extra pomp and circumstance, and Friday's game was no exception.

A parade, led by Budweiser's Clydesdale horses, left City Dock at 11 a.m. and wound through downtown streets. Parachutists, trailing American flags, cascaded onto the playing field before game time. A B-25 bomber thundered overhead.

The event did not come off without logistical hitches. Traffic backed up well onto Route 50 as fans squeezed onto the one-lane exit to Rowe Boulevard.

Well into the first quarter, a sizable crowd of late-arriving ticket holders stood outside the stadium, awaiting entry.

Others grumbled about a paucity of portable toilets in the tailgating area outside.

But far more fans lauded the clear skies, the tolerable temperatures and, most important, the chance to enjoy a winning team.

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