COLLEGE PARK -- A week ago, the University of Maryland football team was battling for a spot in the national rankings. Today, the Terps are trying just to stay in contention for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship when they play host to North Carolina State at noon at Byrd Stadium.
Both teams are 2-1 overall, with each suffering a loss in the conference. Both teams have great defenses. Both teams know that another loss within the ACC would make it mighty hard to win a conference championship.
"Two losses usually puts you out of the running for the conference crown, especially when you're shooting for teams like Virginia or Clemson," said Barry Johnson, Maryland's wide receiver. "This is our second conference game, and it's at home. I would call it a key game."
It probably will be a close one. Maryland beat N.C. State, 30-26, two years ago, and the Wolfpack won last year, 10-6, in the season opener for both teams. Defense has dominated for both teams this season, with the Wolfpack allowing 12 points a game and Maryland, 13.7.
A key in the game could be injuries to several Maryland starters. Strong safety Ron Reagan likely will not play, and three other defensive starters could be used just sparingly because of injuries, according to Terps coach Joe Krivak.
Reagan has been hampered by a sprained ankle, and his backup, Johnny Vessels, has a bruised left thigh. Linebackers Scott Whittier and Jack Bradford -- the second- and third-leading tacklers on the team -- are limping, and nose guard Rick Fleece is hobbling with an ankle injury. All but Reagan are questionable.
"When you play three physical games like we have played, you're going to get nicked," Krivak said. "We've just got to keep on plugging them and patching them up and throwing them back on the field and hope we can get some play out of them."
N.C. State coach Dick Sheridan recently said jokingly that he would have liked to have seen more injuries to Maryland's defensive line, which features tackles Lubo Zizakovic (6 feet 7, 252 pounds) and Larry Webster (6-5, 275).
"We haven't seen anybody block them all year," said Sheridan. "They overwhelmed both Clemson and West Virginia."
Despite averaging 360.3 yards of total offense, N.C. State has struggled offensively. Most of the team's yardage (592 total yards) came in a 67-0 season-opening rout of Western Carolina.
The Wolfpack doesn't have a big-play person at any of the skill positions, but N.C. State does have two solid runners in sophomores Aubrey Shaw (164 yards on 36 attempts), a halfback, and fullback Greg Manior (121 yards on 24 carries).
Sheridan hasn't hesitated to throw the ball, either. There have been times when he has junked the option-I formation for the one-back set, inserting throwing quarterback Terry Jordan for running quarterback Charles Davenport.
"They both seem to be great athletes," said Whittier, Maryland's inside linebacker. "I expect them to mix it up, even though N.C. State usually tries to run first. Most teams haven't been successful running against us [the Terps have allowed 112 rushing and 294.0 passing yards per game], so maybe this time they'll come out passing. The thing about N.C. State is that they're well-coached and they hustle all the time."
Maryland has had its offensive troubles, too. Between the 30-yard lines, the Terps may be one of the most explosive teams in the ACC. Inside the 30, Maryland has scored only three touchdowns and three field goals in 13 opportunities. Two passes have been intercepted, two field-goal attempts missed, two fumbles lost and one fourth-and-one stopped.
North Carolina State, which has eight starters returning, is allowing only 83.3 rushing and 104.3 passing yards a game. Back in the secondary are three starters, including All-American and two-time All-ACC strong safety Jesse Campbell.
Maryland quarterback Scott Zolak, who has completed 69 of 131 passes for 882 yards and five touchdowns, said the Terps can't afford another week of blown opportunities. Maryland failed to capitalize on three of them last week in an 18-17 loss to Clemson.
"We can't keep worrying about the previous weeks because if you do, you start to press," said Zolak. "We know that we can move the ball, and we've gotten some of the kinks out of our system. We just have to keep our heads up, and sooner or later we're going to score a lot of points. It's going to come in bunches."