Marshall beat Maryland, 31-20, in the Military Bowl in nearby Annapolis on Friday, dropping Randy Edsall to 0-1 in his bowl career with the Terps and giving the team an unceremonious farewell from the ACC.
But despite losing to a four-loss Conference USA foe, this season—and even parts of this game—was filled with optimism, giving Terps fans reasons to be confident, if not downright excited, about joining the newly formed Big Ten East next year.
Both Terps units showed some troubling flaws against Marshall, just as they had all season. The offense lacked explosion, registering just two plays of more than 20 yards. The defense lacked depth, failing to keep up with an uptempo offense whenever it was forced to make substitutions.
There are things the Terps must work on, for sure, but nothing about Friday's game revealed any new ones or shed light on a previously ignored problem. This team might be down for the moment—the very immediate moment—but the direction it's headed in remains bright.
The biggest cause for optimism is who will be back; both from injury, in the grander sense, and also after playing in Friday's loss, this team returns some important pieces.
On the first front, receiver Stefon Diggs, who has the potential, polish and work ethic to play like an All-American, should be fully healed from the broken fibula he suffered against Wake Forest on Oct. 19. Defensive stars like Dexter McDougle and Yannick Cudjoe-Virgil should also be back in the fold, and they are expected to return that unit to the form of early 2013.
On the second front, quarterback C.J. Brown has been granted a second senior season as a result of his checkered injury history, while up-and-comer Will Likely will be back in the defensive backfield. That this team made a bowl despite all the injuries speaks well to the players who were forced to step into bigger roles.
And those players will be even better next year because of it.
The combination of those two fronts should ameliorate the flaws listed earlier. No big plays offensively? Brown-to-Diggs should be one of the best big-play combinations in the sport. No defensive depth? There should be more than the Terps have ever had.
Injuries also tend to normalize from year to year. Star-crossed teams like Maryland shouldn't expect to continue getting battered—even if this was the second consecutive time it has happened. If anything, that makes the chances of attrition less likely to occur, since it would be happening for a third straight year.
If the coin lands twice in a row on heads, you're not crazy to expect a tails.
More than anything, though, Maryland appeared ready for its Big Ten close-up during one halcyon drive on Friday evening. It may have come in a losing effort, but the Terps, at one point late in the third quarter, drove 99.5 yards in 17 plays to take their first lead of the game over Marshall.
The drive was about as ugly as it comes, bereft of vertical passing or any sort of aesthetic virtue. It was run after run after short pass after run. It required two fourth-down conversions and siphoned eight minutes off the clock, frustrating both Marshall and casual viewers to no end, but it proved to be effective nonetheless.
If that's not Big Ten football...honestly, I'm not sure what is.