Crowds, wins are Terps' double-deck surprise

September 17, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

COLLEGE PARK -- It was hard to tell which was the more surprising aspect of Maryland's 31-17 defeat of West Virginia last night:

The sellout crowd at newly upper-decked Byrd Stadium, now known as "The House That Bobby Ross Wanted Built."

Or the sight of a Maryland team that was legitimate, talented and undefeated after three games.

It's got to be the latter, right? As shocking as it was that the Terps drew their biggest football crowd in a decade on a rainy night, 15 percent of the fans were cheering for West Virginia.

Come to think of it, the Mountaineers gave the Terps a similarly nice assist on the field, committing six turnovers and holding out injured tailback Robert Walker, who had torched the Terps in two prior games.

Still, the sheer quality that the Terps displayed had to be the most surprising aspect of the night. Thousands of students were so surprised that they jumped the railings and poured onto the field after the game, as if they were celebrating a national championship.

But then, a 3-0 start amounts to winning a national title for a team that has flopped miserably throughout the '90s, yielding spectacular amounts of yardage and giving rise to the possibility that coach Mark Duffner would never sign a second contract.

The Terps kicked off their season having lost 33 of their past 44 games, but now they're on the verge of getting ranked in the Top 25. It might happen today. And while the natural instinct is to mistrust their sudden success as a fluke, it isn't. The Terps are for real. They have a running game, a defense, a kicker -- all those things that real teams have.

Who knows how they'll do the rest of the season, but they have a chance to win every game except the last one, at Florida State. That's not to say they will win every game, understand. But they do have a chance to win. And that hasn't been the case for years.

Why, the Terps can even start tossing around the B word -- a bowl game -- if they want. They're already halfway home to a winning record, and, well, why not? It could very easily happen.

Too much too soon? Hardly. After all those years of ineptitude, the Terps suddenly have much to recommend them.

Like a defense, for instance. The Mountaineers were particularly sloppy last night -- "We just played so poorly that we never gave ourselves a chance," coach Don Nehlen said -- but the Terps gave them fits.

Suddenly, the Terps have all these playmakers on defense, quick, hard-hitting guys who cause all sorts of problems. Ratcliff Thomas, the linebacker, is all over the place. Johnnie Hicks, the nose tackle, is so quick he makes tackles on sweeps. And the defensive backs, particularly free safety Lamont Gore and cornerback Andreal Johnson, are fast and feisty.

All but one of the 11 defensive starters are in at least their third year on campus. And all but three will return next year.

On offense, well, all the headlines about Scott Milanovich's suspension for gambling did a nice job of overshadowing real gains being made. There is so much quality on this side of the ball that it might not matter who plays quarterback.

Start with the offensive line, which must be seen to be believed. The five starters average 309 pounds, and they're almost as quick as they are big. The Terps ran all sorts of traps, counters and misdirection plays last night, and there were holes all over the place.

Carrying the ball most of the time was Buddy Rodgers, a sophomore from Rhode Island who is what Randallstown's Larry Washington was supposed to be, a bull and a workhorse. He broke a 54-yard touchdown run last night and finished with 112 yards, giving him 290 for the season. He runs hard and straight ahead.

The Terps, who were little more than a fancy passing game in Duffner's first three seasons, actually have gained more yards rushing than passing in each of their three games this year. That, perhaps, is the most meaningful sign of their legitimacy. They have achieved offensive balance.

They also have a place-kicker, a basic set piece they lacked as recently as two years ago. Joe O'Donnell has made two of three kicks from 40 yards and beyond. His 47-yarder last night was good by 5 yards.

It's tempting to say that we should have seen this success coming because the Terps played Syracuse and North Carolina State tough last year and won four of their last nine games. But the truth is it was hard to see this coming. Even though the babies Duffner threw on the field two years ago were growing up, it was still hard to envision the pieces coming together. The Terps hadn't won in so long.

They're winning now, though, and the feeling in the sold-out stadium last night was that they would be winning some more this season. Count on it.

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