The day of truth has arrived for the University of Maryland's football program. Were the two straight victories to open the season beginner's luck, or is it the beginning of an era?
The Terps can climb back into national prominence at noon today with a win over No. 16 Clemson at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. Maryland is off to its best start in four years under head coach Joe Krivak, who also is in the final year of his contract.
But today's game is more than about winning streaks and a coach's job status. A win today, coupled with last week's 20-13 win over then No. 25 West Virginia, probably would push the Terps into the national rankings for the first time since Sept. 28, 1985. A victory also would make them a top contender for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship for the first time since they won it in 1985.
Krivak has downplayed the game all week, but his players know the benefits of a victory.
"As far as I'm concerned, it's just the third game of the season and the conference opener," said Krivak.
Now listen to Maryland quarterback Scott Zolak.
"We're going in thinking that we haven't won a game," said Zolak, "but realistically, if we beat Clemson, we get a lot of people's attention. We open a lot of eyes real quick."
Terps nose guard Rick Fleece said: "I would like to start bringing back some of that respect we've lost over the years. A win against Clemson would do that. They have been one of the best teams in the conference during the last 10 years. Everybody shoots for them."
But against Maryland, Clemson (1-1) has had the big guns. In the past three years, Clemson has beaten Maryland by 29, 24 and 24 points.
But Maryland has won its first two games this season with a strong defense, a new one-back offensive set and two game-winning touchdowns from Zolak to wide receiver Gene Thomas in the final minutes. The Terps are playing with a new confidence.
Meanwhile, Clemson is playing under a first-year coach, Ken Hatfield. The Tigers got off to a fine start, routing Long Beach State, 59-0, but then lost to Virginia, 20-7, last Saturday.
Consecutive losses within the conference would surely cost Clemson a shot at the Atlantic Coast Conference title.
"I think everybody is looking forward to playing Maryland," said Clemson tight end Stacy Fields. "The load is off our back right now."
Said Vance Hammond, Clemson's starting defensive tackle, "The wonderful thing about losing is everybody gets tighter, everybody works harder, everybody has more dedication, more fire in their eyes.
"That's what football is all about, and that's what builds character in a team. I don't see how Maryland could overlook us. They've been shooting at us for five years now. They're going to concentrate on us hard and we're going to concentrate on them."
The game should be a physical one. Clemson's strength on offense is it's line, and Maryland's strength on defense is its line and linebackers.
In the past, the Terps have had problems containing Clemson's speedy running backs on the outside. Hatfield hasn't changed the option offense from that of his predecessor, Danny Ford.
Clemson's new backfield gained 330 yards on the ground in the rout of Long Beach State, but collected 181 in the loss to Virginia. Maryland is giving up only 109.5 yards rushing per game.
"The key will be the perimeter," said Michael Hollis, one of the Terps' starting cornerbacks. "Our outside linebackers will have to read well on the option and our inside linebackers have to challenge their guards. Clemson is a very physical team. Nothing fancy, they just come at you."
Maryland's offense will also have the challenge of playing against one of the better defenses in the country. The Tigers allowed Long Beach State only 57 yards in total offense (including minus-16 rushing). Against Virginia, however, Clemson allowed 213 rushing yards and 145 passing.
While Zolak has thrown for more than 300 yards in each games, the Terps have played well only in spurts and have had trouble scoring.
The Terps will badly miss starting guard Ron Staffileno who is out with a shoulder injury. Staffileno will be replaced by Kevin Arline, who had trouble picking up blitzes last week against West Virginia.
"In time though, I think he is going to be pretty good," said Krivak.