- The Washington Times - Friday, October 10, 2003

Fittingly enough, the Maryland Terrapins are repeating the fable of the tortoise and the hare.

Maryland seeks its fifth straight victory tonight as an overwhelming 27-point favorite over Duke at Byrd Stadium. After starting 0-2, the Terps suddenly are close to rejoining the Top 25 on the way to a possible third straight 10 wins-plus season under coach Ralph Friedgen.

The naysayers have been silenced since Maryland rebounded from losses to Northern Illinois and Florida State, both 5-0 and ranked 16th and fifth respectively.

“So the moral to that story is, it’s not where you start but where you finish,” Friedgen said. “Persistence. Luck. I don’t try to panic. [The media says] a game early in the season is a critical game. It’s just another game. The critical games come at the end of the year because you know where you’re at, not at the beginning of the year. You can always recover from a loss early. It’s the late ones you have trouble recovering from.”

Friedgen’s teams haven’t always started slow and then built momentum; in fact, the Terps won their first seven in his 2001 debut. In the last two seasons, however, the Terps seemingly have needed a breakout game to rebuild their confidence — both times against West Virginia. Maryland began the road back last month with a 24-3 victory over the Mountaineers, its best overall effort.

“It’s partly who we’re playing,” Friedgen said of the slow starts. “Most teams get better as the season goes on.”

Last season the Terps won eight straight after opening 1-2. Friedgen has been involved in four of Maryland’s 10 starts of 1-2 or worse since 1980, including two as an assistant coach. Those four teams later won 72.7 percent of their games, but the six non-Friedgen teams took 26.9 percent.

This week Maryland has practiced three of four days in light pads despite Friedgen’s warnings not to take perennially weak Duke (2-3, 0-2 ACC) lightly. The battered Terps can’t afford more injuries, so Friedgen gambled that non-contact workouts would get Maryland (4-2, 1-1) ready. Friedgen said the softer workouts weren’t because Duke has lost 27 straight ACC games.

“A lot of things are going to happen within the next six weeks,” Friedgen said. “There’s going to be some teams that will be able to focus and be there at the end and some that don’t focus and get knocked off. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing, you better be focused that week.”

Said safety Dennard Wilson: “You can’t take a breath. We can’t afford any more losses. Eastern Michigan snuck up on us. We can’t have that anymore.”

Maryland is emerging from its early offensive woes. Quarterback Scott McBrien threw three touchdowns against Clemson in last week’s 21-7 victory, and the Terps are second in rushing in the ACC. Meanwhile, the defense has allowed only 27 points in four games.

“We’re finally hitting stride,” receiver Latrez Harrison said. “What better time to put together good games than the ACC?”

The Terps’ offensive balance has perplexed opposing defenses. Running back Sammy Maldonado returns from a two-game suspension for violating team rules, and Bruce Perry (high ankle sprain) appears healthy to complement Josh Allen for a complete backfield of power and finesse runners. The improved running game is drawing safeties closer to the line, giving receivers more room for medium-range passes in single coverage.

“You stretch the field vertically, and if you can do that it opens a lot of things,” Friedgen said. “The reason we’ve been making some big plays recently is because we’re running the ball pretty good and people are trying to get those safeties in there to stop the run and it opens things in the passing game.”

Friedgen promised players three days off during the bye week, which gives Maryland a 12-day break before the Terps visit Georgia Tech on Oct.23. The schedule gets tougher after the break, with bowl contenders Virginia, N.C. State and Wake Forest ahead.

“I’m still waiting for that [best] game,” he said. “I would hope we would continue to get better.”

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