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Terps reach critical point in salvage mission

An appropriate gray sky and steady mist hung over College Park in recent days, an overhead reminder that the shiny days of Maryland's upbeat August camp are long since past.

Even the weather is a reminder these days of the pressing predicament the Terrapins find themselves in at the season's midpoint. They're 2-4, their worst start since 2000. No game has come easy, and none of the final half-dozen figure to be a breeze.

And while Maryland is one of two teams in the ACC's Atlantic Division with only one loss in conference play, it is difficult to ignore the seriousness of the situation the Terps face entering Saturday's date with suddenly vibrant Virginia (2-3, 1-0).

"I wouldn't say there's tension," safety Terrell Skinner said before pausing briefly. "There's a little uneasy feeling. Nobody likes to lose, coming off a loss and everything. It's kind of like our job is on the line. We want to win an ACC championship. You could say there's a little tension."

Whatever the feeling - anxiety, perhaps? - the consequences of the first half-dozen games warrant it. And it leaves the Terps in position to face the temptation to think both short-term and long-term at the same time.

Maryland cannot solve its quandary in a mere weekend. Yet while sizing up the Terps' remaining schedule, there's little doubt the next two games - against Virginia and at Duke - are vital components to salvaging the season.

Even with a split, Maryland would be 3-5 before a bye week and possess little margin for error in a final stretch featuring a date with ACC favorite Virginia Tech, a trip to Florida State in the Seminoles' (and perhaps coach Bobby Bowden's) home finale and a season-ending clash with Boston College.

The next two games are critical enough for coach Ralph Friedgen to mention them repeatedly this week. Whether the message has seeped through is tougher to tell.

"I'm probably the last person you should be asking," Friedgen said. "I've been stressing it all week. I think so. I'm kind of quoting what [Virginia coach Al Groh] said - they've got eyes and ears. They're smart guys."

And they have memories, too. Virginia scuttled the Terps the past two years, using a late drive and a favorable spot on a fourth-down carry to escape Byrd Stadium with a 18-17 victory in 2007 to ignite a three-game skid for the Terps.

Last year's outcome - a 31-0 humbling in Charlottesville - was even worse, and arguably Maryland's worst all-around performance in the past five seasons.

"My No. 1 thing, it's not just for us to bounce back after a loss, but at the same time I'm thinking about last year with what they did to us when we went down there," safety Jamari McCollough said. "They basically embarrassed us. They shut us out; they were talking trash. It's a big rivalry, and they were picking on us like we were little kids, basically. It's definitely time for payback."

Trouble is, the Terps will encounter an especially excited team trying to avoid the same fate Maryland is trying to escape. Virginia can complete its climb out of an 0-3 hole with a victory, a significant development for a team that was among the nation's worst in the opening weeks.

"I heard one player say it's like a second homecoming because we have such a history with Maryland and playing there and them playing here," linebacker Aaron Clark said. "I think everybody's jacked up for it."

Friedgen can only hope the same is true of his outfit. Left tackle Bruce Campbell (left MCL) and linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield (broken left hand) are both questionable as the increasingly thin Terps try to survive despite significant absences.

Nevertheless, Maryland will head into what is expected to be another dreary day and attempt to begin a turnaround that simply can't wait much longer.

"I still have a lot of optimism about this season," Friedgen said. "I'm hoping we can get a win this weekend and see where we are healthwise before the stretch run at the end. I think we have two very important games before we have an open date. To me, these are critical to our season."

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