COLLEGE PARK -- When co-captain and nose guard Rick Fleece checked into Maryland coach Joe Krivak's office the other day, a secretary handed him a letter. It had been hand-delivered, bearing nothing except Fleece's name on the envelope, and was unsigned.
The writer congratulated the Terps on their five victories, applauded them for their hard work and urged them to maintain their intensity and not to lose sight of their goals. He closed by saying he watches not only games but practices, as well.
"I have no idea who wrote it," Fleece said as he continued preparations for Maryland's game at Penn State Saturday. "I put it on the bulletin board in the locker room so everybody could see it."
If the letter serves to inspire the team, the writer's timing was impeccable. After 24 straight defeats since their only win over Penn State in 1961, the Terps tied the Nittany Lions last year. Now they want to take it a step further.
"The team had mixed feelings about the tie," said Fleece, whose parents moved during his freshman year from Somerdale, N.J., where he went to high school, to Columbia.
"Some were happy, others disappointed. Me, I wasn't happy. It just didn't mean that much. It was significant in the series because we had lost so many in a row, but it wasn't a win. This is my last shot to get the win I wanted last year."
Fleece played most of the game last season against Penn State with a broken right hand. On the sixth play of the game -- the same one in which defensive linemate Larry Webster broke his foot -- someone stepped on Fleece's hand.
"Blair Thomas went off tackle and went to our 5-yard line," Fleece said. "But they didn't score."
Fleece's hand hurt, but not enough to tell the coaches, not enough to take himself out of the game. It wasn't until the hand was X-rayed the next day that he knew it was broken.
"We didn't know he hurt it," said defensive coordinator Greg Williams. "That's the way Rick is."
The next game was Maryland's finale, against Virginia. Fleece played with his hand in a cast and had five tackles and two assists.
"I didn't like the cast," Fleece said. "I'm used to switching stances, putting my right hand down and then my left. I couldn't put my right hand down or fend off blockers."
A three-year starter, Fleece missed only one game last year, with a deep thigh bruise, and has missed one this year, against Clemson, with a sprained ankle. In the estimation of a member of an enemy camp, there is no better nose guard in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"Larry Van Der Haydan, Clemson's offensive line coach, told me that last year at a convention," Williams said. "Fleece knows what to do and has the talent to do it."
Fleece considers it a substantial advantage that Maryland had an open date last weekend while Penn State was occupied with beating West Virginia, 31-19.
"It gave us a week longer to study Penn State film and the coaches more time to work on the game plan," Fleece said. "We had some extra practices, too."
Fleece relishes encounters with Penn State. There are no cheap shots, no cheap talk -- just good clean hitting.
"They always play a good, aggressive game," he said. "I like that. They're solid."
It takes a solid player to know a solid opponent.
Senior receiver Barry Johnson has 102 career catches, putting him six shy of Azizuddin Abdur-Ra'oof's Maryland mark established from 1984 to '87.