- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 27, 2008

Edwin Williams leaned over a table in the Gossett team house dining room, barely able to contain his weeklong glee.

“I’m soooo ready to play this game right now,” the senior center said.

It was only Tuesday.

Williams’ eagerness and impatience leaves little question the arrival of conference play - in the form of Saturday’s trip to No. 20 Clemson - provides a lift to a program still attempting to determine the sort of season it will produce.

While the last four weeks provided both an emotional victory over a ranked team and a lackluster road loss to a relative unknown, the reality is the Terrapins seemed like a good bet a month ago to enter ACC play at 3-1. Sure enough, Maryland rolls into Death Valley with precisely that record and many of the same uncertainties it possessed when the season commenced.

The pass rush remains questionable. The Terps’ offense, though potent the last few weeks, has managed only four drives of 10 or more plays, forcing the defense to remain on the field. The secondary is still riddled with questions related to both performance and injury.

The holding pattern, though, might change after meeting the Tigers (3-1, 1-0 ACC).

“After this game, I think everybody’s opinion will change [to] ‘All right, Maryland’s back’ if we come out here and play like we know how to play,” safety Jeff Allen said.

That could happen if the Terps win, a possibility that seems more likely now than a month ago. Clemson’s preseason hype, which drowned out talk of other ACC teams, eroded because of an opening-week loss to Alabama and severe problems at offensive line and linebacker.

At least the Tigers have identified their major problems. Maryland still swings violently from week to week and even quarter to quarter, which makes discerning large-scale trends problematic. If nothing else, the Terps are unpredictable and capable of a wide scale of performances.

“We’ve learned when we play well, we’re pretty good,” quarterback Chris Turner said. “When we play bad, we’re pretty bad. It’s really about consistency with us.”

Perhaps some steadiness is about to arrive. Turner cobbled together back-to-back efficient performances to solidify his hold on the quarterback job, and Maryland’s offense finally looks like a unit capable of producing more strong days than not.

There are no assurances of that, and even coach Ralph Friedgen wondered if he’ll ever really know what to expect. But the victories over California and Eastern Michigan at least leave him with a sense of his team’s resilience before October arrives.

“They could have folded after Middle Tennessee, and they didn’t do that,” Friedgen said. “I do think we’re getting better each and every week. As long as we do that, I think we’ll have a chance.”

The start of ACC play should only help the Terps’ attention from wandering. Atlantic Division favorites Clemson and Wake Forest are among their next three opponents, with a trip to Virginia and a bye week wedged in between.

Yet this trip might be the most anticipated game of all. The combination of the conference opener and a meeting with the vaunted Tigers provided a platform for Maryland to ponder throughout the offseason and camp.

And while Williams figured Clemson would be unbeaten - and hoped the Terps would be as well - the teams’ early losses did not lessen the potential impact of today’s game.

“This is kind of a defining moment to the season,” Williams said. “This game will probably be the biggest challenge we’ve had.”

Possible problems lurk all over the field. Clemson’s tailback tandem of James Davis and C.J. Spiller remains one of the nation’s elite. Defensive ends Da’Quan Bowers and Ricky Sapp regularly create havoc. The Tigers’ special teams units are especially dangerous with Spiller and Jacoby Ford returning kicks.

Maryland is looking forward to it all when it finally arrives Saturday.

“For me, I’m antsy, because it’s the ACC,” Turner said. “It doesn’t matter what [happens] before the ACC. We could be 0-4 and win every game from now and be in the Orange Bowl.”

A run like that would be worth the wait.

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