At Duffner's urging, upbeat Terps could sneak up on few people this season

Bill Tanton

August 31, 1993|By Bill Tanton

COLLEGE PARK -- The most intriguing words I've heard concerning the Maryland football season that opens here Saturday were spoken not at coach Mark Duffner's first weekly press luncheon yesterday. They were uttered 150 miles from here one day last week.

Keith Neff, a Maryland alumnus and Terrapin Clubber, was encountered at Dewey Beach, Del. Neff has a love for his alma mater but he is generally realistic in appraising its teams, which makes him a rare booster.

"How many games you think Maryland will win?" I asked.

"I was with Duffner the other day," he said, "and I'll tell you what -- I think they're going to sneak up on some people."

That intrigues me because at the news conference I asked the same question of several regulars at these things.

One held up three fingers. Another answered: "Four, maybe?" Said another with a shrug: "Not many."

The idea of sneaking up on opponents is vastly more appealing than the prospect of watching Maryland go 3-8 again.

On paper, it looks as if Duffner's second year at Maryland could, indeed, produce a mere three victories.

The Terps' schedule, perhaps the most daunting in the school's history, appears even more formidable now than it did a week ago.

Florida State showed last Saturday why everybody is picking it No. 1 in the country when it crushed Kansas, 42-0. The next day North Carolina pounded 31-9, in Los Angeles. Suddenly the basketball-minded Atlantic Coast Conference is starting to look like a football conference, too.

The knee-jerk reaction is that those two games -- North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Sept. 11, Florida State here on Nov. 6 -- are guaranteed losses for ambitious but young Maryland.

In the annual preseason poll of ACC writers, the Terps were picked No. 7. Only Wake Forest and Duke were picked below them.

4 How many games can the Terps win, realistically?

They could beat Duke and Wake Forest. They could beat Virginia this week, although the Cavaliers are favored by 4 1/2 points. It wouldn't shock anyone if they beat West Virginia on Sept. 18 or Virginia Tech a week later.

Beyond that. . . well, that's where Maryland is going to have to do some

sneaking up on people.

Duffner's Terps proved in the final game of the '92 season that they're capable of doing that. Nobody thought Maryland would beat Clemson then, but the Terps crushed the visitors, 53-23. It was a victory Duffner says was "gigantic" for his program. It is also one that is not likely to be repeated when Maryland and Clemson meet Oct. 30 in Death Valley.

I agree with Keith Neff that Maryland is going to sneak up on some people.

Don't look for it to happen against Florida State. But it could happen against anyone else on the schedule including Penn State, even though Maryland hasn't beaten Penn State since 1961.

I think it's possible for Maryland to go 6-5 this year. That's based largely on the intangible Duffner delivers in huge doses: enthusiasm.

While many coaches like to moan about how many lettermen they've graduated and how hard it will be to replace them, Duffner remains positive, no matter what.

Last week, because of academic shortcomings, he lost Lonny Calicchio, the junior college transfer who was to have been Maryland's regular punter and kicker. Did Duffner use that as any kind of excuse? Of course not.

Of the new placement guy, freshman Ken Lytle, he said: "He's an excellent kicker."

Of 245-pound senior defensive end Mark Sturdivant, who is also trying out and showed a strong leg in a workout yesterday, Duffner said: "We could have the biggest kicker in the country."

Of his new punter, Scott Milanovich, he said: "That'll give us another dimension, having our regular quarterback back there to punt. We saw how effective that was when Danny White was kicking for the Cowboys."

Duffner's optimism in the face of adversity reminded me of a long-ago Maryland football coach, Tom Nugent, who reacted similarly some 30 years ago when he lost his starting quarterback for the season.

"Sure, it's a blow when you lose your No. 1 quarterback," Nugent said, his Irish eyes gleaming, "but you have to look on the bright side. The No. 2 guy might turn out to be even better than the No. 1. And you'd never have known that if you hadn't lost your No. 1 guy."

It might be fitting to mention here that Nugent is not only the last Maryland coach to beat Penn State; he's the only one who ever did it.

Three decades later, attitude is no less important in football. Mark Duffner's upbeat manner rubs off not only on his players but on everyone around him.

Maryland, which is probably two recruiting classes away from contending for an ACC championship, will need the great attitude if it is going to sneak up on anybody this season.

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