It was unlikely the milestone, however modest it was, of passing the victory total of his first season at Maryland was on coach Randy Edsall's mind Saturday.
The usual mantras were there. Continue to improve. Become more consistent. Do whatever possible to perfect technique.
However on message and parsimonious with praise he might often be, even Edsall had no problems acknowledging the obvious from the Terrapins' 19-14 defeat of Wake Forest.
"I thought our overall defense was outstanding," Edsall said.
As it generally was for the four games before it.
Maryland is 3-2 and the lone team in the ACC's Atlantic Division unbeaten in conference play at 1-0. These are not Olympian feats, but important nonetheless when viewed through the prism of a program less than a year removed from bumbling its way to a 2-10 record.
There were many hallmarks of the lost season, from suspensions to player attrition to a quarterback merry-go-round to an increasingly empty stadium. But nothing about the Terps was as toothless as their defense, which was ranked 102nd nationally in points allowed per game, 108th in total yardage and 111th against the run.
Injuries were a factor, no doubt. Maryland used 12 defensive lineups in as many games. It still cost accidental coordinator Todd Bradford, elevated from linebackers coach after Don Brown left for Connecticut in February 2011, his job.
In came Brian Stewart, late of Conference USA's Houston Cougars, with a 3-4 defense and the intent of revitalizing the fractured unit.
There was reason to think Maryland would be better defensively. Its front seven is filled with veterans. It had the plethora of linebackers needed to make the move to the new scheme smoothly. And it couldn't get much worse than a year ago.
But this good? No. 7 nationally in total defense good? No. 7 against the run good?
"We really don't care where we are in the country, but our main goal is to be No. 1 in the ACC," linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield said.
The Terps are in fact second in the conference in those two categories, and pass defense as well. Their scoring defense is third in the league. And after holding their fourth opponent in five games to less than 300 yards, there is a sense the defense is both legitimate and capable of keeping Maryland in the hunt for an unexpected bowl appearance in Edsall's second year.
It was the defense that bought time for Maryland to finally stitch together enough scoring drives to win Saturday. After a blown coverage led to a touchdown on Wake Forest's first drive, the Terps were nearly flawless. In the final 59 minutes, the Demon Deacons ran 64 plays for 166 yards.
Maryland also has gone the opposite direction in another way. Its opening week defensive starters combined to miss 36 games with injuries last year. This year, the likes of defensive end Keith Bowers, safety Matt Robinson and linebacker Kenneth Tate came back from camp ailments.
But mostly, the Terps are just improved.
"I think everybody on the field is a better player," defensive lineman A.J. Francis said. "[Defensive line coach Greg] Gattuso's made me a better player. Another year with him's made me way better than I was a year ago, and it shows on the field. The same thing for Joe. The same thing for Kenny. The same thing for Mete."
Nearly halfway through the season, Maryland's defense is from fluky. On its worst day, it gave 363 yards to West Virginia; the Mountaineers' next worst outing in four other games is 460 yards. It has held four opponents to less than 250 yards for the first time since 2003.
And it is the reason Maryland takes a winning record into Saturday's trip to Virginia (2-4, 0-2).
"It definitely has to do with coaching," defensive lineman Joe Vellano said. "He's got us in great spots, really making it simple for us. Coach Stew's thing is he wants to have everybody play fast and when you do that, he doesn't want anybody thinking out there so he's got a bunch of good combinations of stuff that keeps the offense thinking. But everybody's clear on what they're doing."
Notes: Edsall said Sunday he was leaning toward using sophomore Justus Pickett, along with freshman Wes Brown, in a larger role in the backfield. "When you take a look and see in the three wins, the guy who's stepped up big at the end has been Justus Pickett," Edsall said. "We're going to talk a little bit. I think it'll be Justus and Wes doing the heavy load stuff there."
• Linebacker L.A Goree did not play Saturday after suffering a pregame injury.
"First time I've lost a guy in pregame warmups ...," said Edsall, who does not think the undisclosed ailment is serious. "He had an issue. We came out and they told me he wasn't ready to go. That was a first."
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Patrick Stevens has covered Maryland and other Mid-Atlantic college sports for more than a decade. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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