- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2003

The Maryland Terrapins are whopping 341/2-point favorites to win their third straight game tomorrow at Eastern Michigan. But the odds against their winning the ACC title and going to a major bowl are long.

Maryland overcame a 1-2 start to win eight straight and take the Peach Bowl a year ago. After starting 0-2 this season, the Terps have regained their swagger after beating The Citadel and West Virginia by a combined 95-7 margin. Those wins followed an embarrassing overtime upset at Northern Illinois and a blowout loss at Florida State.

With only one currently winning opponent scheduled over the next seven weeks, a third straight 10-victory season and a Gator Bowl appearance as ACC runner-up are possible.

“We’ve been there, done that, so let’s make this run,” defensive coordinator Gary Blackney said. “That’s not the way you want to start out, but you use past experience to help you.”

The Terps believe last year’s rebound magic can work once more. The veteran team knows how quickly fortunes turn. After being treated as untouchables around campus when they were 0-2, the players once more are favorite sons.

“You can be down so low and the next week up so high and people praising you and wanting to be around you,” quarterback Scott McBrien said. “We’re [nearly] in the same position as last year, and that gave us confidence knowing we can do what we did last year. Things work themselves out. We learned not to get down.”

The bad start led to second guessing in both the stands and the locker room. Even coach Ralph Friedgen reviewed his methods.

“I look at what am I doing wrong? Is my team not in shape? Doing too much?” he said. “We had two games on the road and that was a tough situation, and we played two good football teams.”

Several playmakers were hurt, the quarterback was reeling and the fourth-string guard, who had never played the position, started. The turnaround began when key players became healthy. Steve Suter scored a 75-yard touchdown on a punt return in his debut against The Citadel. Guard Lamar Bryant opened up the inside running game when he returned against West Virginia. McBrien is no longer bothered by a sore groin.

Practices are looser than the grim-faced workouts the first two weeks of the season. Friedgen christened his new sound system at the practice field with upbeat music varying from country to rap. Players finally unwound and stopped making mental mistakes from trying too hard.

“It’s amazing the difference in how we’re running now and how we ran three weeks ago,” Friedgen said of the post-practice conditioning. “I think they saw Saturday night they’re in pretty good shape so maybe this running is helping them. Our kids are more confident right now. They’re looking for the next game. They want to get this momentum going. They’re just starting to reach their potential. We feel good right now.”

Said Bryant: “Everybody is getting a better grasp of what’s going on on their side of the ball. Not what they have to do, but what everyone lined up next to them has to do so everything clicks better. It takes a lot of mental stress off us, and we just go out there and play ball.”

But is it enough to save a season where the preseason expectations included a No.15 ranking, Maryland’s highest entering an opener since 1985? Were the Terps overly hyped after routing Tennessee 30-3 in the Peach Bowl?

Regardless, Maryland is clearly playing better defense now. The nine carryover starters have shown increased flexibility no matter the opponent’s strength. Special teams have been nearly flawless, with kicker Nick Novak among the nation’s elite.

But the offense still can improve despite gaining 1,063 yards the last two games. The dropback passing game isn’t clicking downfield regularly. Receivers have muffed big plays too often. The pass protection needs improvement.

“We’re better than where we’ve been, but we’re not where we need to be yet,” Friedgen said.

Maryland still has time to develop before late-season showdowns. The final three games against visiting Virginia and at N.C. State and Wake Forest will be the season’s toughest stretch. Meanwhile, the Terps figure to be big favorites the next five games.

“I preach to them to get better each day,” Friedgen said. “One or two games does not make the season. The real big games are at the end of the year, and we have to get better and better so we can handle that situation on the road — and that’s going to take character, too.”

Notes — Running back Bruce Perry is doubtful after aggravating his high ankle sprain yesterday. However, receiver Jafar Williams (hand) is probable. Defensive end Scott Smith (back) may miss the rest of the season … Guard Akil Paterson was suspended indefinitely for violating team rules.

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