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STEVE DESHAZO: Terrapins can’t prosper by counting on understudies

COLLEGE PARK, Md.—It’s probably a good thing coach Randy Edsell relented and restored the names to the back of Maryland’s uniforms this year. At the moment, it’s nearly impossible to tell the players without a program.

The quarterback who sparked the Terrapins to a season-high 462 yards of offense Saturday against N.C. State spent spring practice as a wide receiver. The man who replaced him for a desperate drive in the final seconds likewise never had taken a college snap. And the kicker whose 33-yard field goal clanged off the left upright, sealing an excruciating 20–18 loss, was a freshman pressed into action due to a career-ending injury to the incumbent.

“We’ll take a lot of positives out of this,” senior defender Joe Vellano said, “how many guys stepped up.”

That’s the glass-half-full approach that the Terps have to take. The alternate view, though, is that a young team without much depth missed a golden chance to move closer to bowl eligibility. Brad Craddock’s makable field goal attempt served as the latest kick to the gut for a team with little margin for error.

Even before incumbent quarterback C.J. Brown tore his ACL in preseason practice, the Terrapins were thin on offense. True freshman Perry Hills performed admirably with little notice, complementing a stingy defense as Maryland won four of its first six games (twice as many victories as in all of 2011). Although the Terps hadn’t been truly tested, they entered Saturday’s play as the only Atlantic Coast Conference team without a league loss.

Then Hills was carted off the Byrd Stadium field Saturday after going down while chasing the Wolfpack’s David Amerson on an interception return. Edsall wasn’t sure of the extent of Hills’ knee injury, but admitted that “it doesn’t look good.” (That’s often coach-speak for torn ACL.)

In came Devin Burns, a sophomore who came to Maryland as a quarterback, but switched to receiver in the spring to exploit his athletic ability. He moved back to QB when Brown was lost before the season started, and he essentially ran many of the plays the Terps would have preferred had the similarly mobile Brown been available.

Burns gained 50 yards rushing on 12 carries (mostly option reads), and the threat of his legs opened up holes for freshman tailback Wes Brown to gain a season-high 121 yards. (For comparison, Maryland entered the game averaging just 71 rushing yards per game, 118th out of 120 FBS teams.)

For all his speed, Burns isn’t much of a passer, though. And when the Wolfpack took a 20–18 lead with 32 seconds left, Edsall turned to freshman Caleb Rowe. Like Hills, Rowe is more of a traditional pocket passer, and all he did was scramble for 11 yards and complete his only two pass attempts for 50 yards against a confused Wolfpack defense. And like Burns, he played older than his years—thanks in part to the lack of a scouting report.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” N.C. State defensive end Brian Slay said. “[Burns] came in and he was a running type, so we weren’t prepared for it. That’s why he was eating up yards.”

But Craddock—kicking only because Nick Ferrara’s chronic hip injuries-found the left upright with his 33-yard attempt, and a homecoming crowd of 40,217 went home disappointed.

What could have been a watershed win for a rebuilding program instead became a missed opportunity. A win would have given Maryland a chance to become bowl eligible next Saturday at Boston College. Now, even if they beat the Eagles, the Terps will need to beat Georgia Tech, Clemson, Florida State or North Carolina. And Maryland won’t have the element of surprise against any of those formidable foes the way it did Saturday.

Edsall seems to have survived the firestorm that followed the debacle of his 2–10 début season, and the Terps are headed in the right direction. Any bowl appearance this year would do wonders for morale. But if the rebuilding process takes longer than he (or fickle Maryland fans) expect, Saturday will be seen as a chance that got away.

Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443

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