Maryland in ACC title hunt after dubious start

The Maryland Terrapins are a good team.

They're also a lucky team.

How else to account for the fact that Maryland (7-2, 4-1) has been outgained by every Division I-A opponent it has faced this season, yet heads into Saturday's game against Miami in College Park tied for first in the ACC's Atlantic Division and ranked No. 23 in the country?

The Terps' good fortune is reflected in their current four-game win streak. The combined margin of victory in those wins is 12 points. Throw in the 14-10 victory over Florida International on Sept. 23, and Maryland has won its last five games by 16 total points.

"Those games could have gone either way," senior quarterback Sam Hollenbach said. "To be honest with you, we caught some breaks, we got lucky. We beat some good teams right at the last minute that we could have lost to."

Take Saturday's 13-12 victory against Clemson in Death Valley. The Tigers had a touchdown called back on their final possession and settled for a field goal and 12-10 lead. Maryland responded by driving downfield quickly and winning the game on Dan Ennis' 31-yard field goal with no time left on the clock.

With three conference games remaining, the Terrapins are tied with Wake Forest -- the teams will meet on Nov 25 in College Park -- for the Atlantic Division lead. Maryland has not won the ACC championship since Friedgen's first season as coach in 2001.

"Those games could have gone either way. To be honest with you, we caught some breaks, we got lucky. We beat some good teams right at the last minute that we could have lost to."
-- Maryland QB Sam Hollenbach

Not bad for a team that was coming off two straight losing seasons and predicted, in a preseason media poll, to finish a distant fourth in its division.

"I thought we would have a good team this year," said Friedgen, who is also serving as the Terps' offensive coordinator this season. "We only have 12 seniors, but we had more depth than what we've had and we had an experienced quarterback. So I felt that we would be better than what the so-called experts picked us."

The experts looked like they were on the mark after Maryland followed season-opening victories against Division I-AA William & Mary and Middle Tennessee State with a nationally televised 45-24 loss to West Virginia in Morgantown on Sept. 14.

A life-and-death struggle against winless Florida International the week after the West Virginia defeat wasn't much reason for optimism, either.

"Everybody was down on us," said Terps cornerback Josh Wilson, who has played well defensively and ranks third in the ACC with a 30.6-yard kickoff return average. "Everybody was kind of thinking our season was going down."

Maryland appeared to blow a chance to turn around its season against Georgia Tech on Oct. 7, blowing a nine-point, fourth-quarter lead in Atlanta. The game ended with Maryland driving to the Yellow Jackets' 7-yard line but failing to score a go-ahead touchdown in four downs.

"We lost that game, but it gave us confidence that we could play with a good team," Wilson said.

The Terrapins haven't lost since. They rebounded from a 20-0 halftime deficit against Virginia in Charlottesville to win and have beaten North Carolina State, Florida State and Clemson since then.

Maryland has won those games by 2, 6, 3 and 1 point respectively.

"When you play in so many close games, you get kind of used to it," Wilson said. "You've been there before. Like last week [against Clemson]. We've been in that situation so many times, it wasn't a shock to us. You don't go in the tank. It's almost like home."

Wilson, a senior, said Maryland probably would have lost those games in either of the past two seasons. The Terrapins lost five games by eight points or less in 2004 and 2005.

The formula Maryland has used to turn around this season centers around reducing turnovers. The Terrapins committed 13 turnovers in their first five games, but only three during their current four-game win streak.

"That's been huge," Hollenbach said. "With our margin of victory being so small, it really comes down to playing smart."

No one has played smarter than Hollenbach, a 6-foot-4, 214-pound native of Sellersville, Pa., whose 15 interceptions last season were second in the ACC to FSU's Drew Weatherford, who was picked off 18 times.

This season, Hollenbach has thrown only six interceptions in nine games, and his 10 touchdown passes are tied for third in the conference. He's thrown two interceptions during the four-game win streak.

"I think he's starting to play his best football right now," Friedgen said. "He's thrown the ball well when we've asked him to and made plays. I think he's made some very good decisions on plays that weren't there. In the past, he would try to make something and end up with an interception or a fumble or whatever.

"I think he's starting to play his best football right now. He's thrown the ball well when we've asked him to and made plays. I think he's made some very good decisions on plays that weren't there."
-- Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen on QB Sam Hollenbach

"I think he's gaining more and more confidence. For us to be successful the rest of the season, he's going to have to really continue the trend."

If that happens, the Terrapins may wind up with the Atlantic Division's berth in the ACC title game. But with three difficult games between Maryland and a trip to Jacksonville on Dec. 2., few Terps are willing to look too far ahead.

"That's something we have to be careful with," Hollenbach said. "It's definitely in the back of our mind, but at this point in our season, it's probably more dangerous than helpful for us to be thinking about that."

With a little more luck, Hollenbach and Maryland may just get there.

Jorge Milian covers the ACC for The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post.