Terps return to poll at 24th 1st ranking since '86, 3-0 start have team in early bowl picture

September 18, 1995|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

How did Maryland's players react when they heard they were No. 24 in the Associated Press rankings, the Terps' first appearance in a national poll since 1986?

"They were positive," Mark Duffner said, doing his best -- and failing -- to temper expectations after the crowning moment to the happiest weekend for Maryland football in a decade.

Inside the team room, the spoken goal since veterans reported to preseason camp on Aug. 10 has been a bowl game, and a sellout crowd at Byrd Stadium on Saturday night joined in the speculation after a 31-17 whipping of West Virginia that featured a number of milestones.

West Virginia's 211 yards were the fewest by a Terps opponent since 1985.

The crowd, 48,055, was the largest at Byrd Stadium in 10 years.

The record, 3-0, matches the 1986 start, the program's best since it was 8-0 in 1978.

The Terps' fast start in 1986 got them to No. 13 in the AP rankings, but they promptly went into a tailspin, losing five of their next six to begin the decline that has resulted in just one winning record since.

The mood was bleak two years ago, Duffner's second season in command, when they needed a last-minute drive in the season finale at Wake Forest to avoid the first 10-loss season in Terps history.

Now Duffner can count on offensive balance, a ball-hawking defense that has forced 14 turnovers and solid special-teams play, a combination that has allowed the Terps to win every game by at least two touchdowns.

There are rarely more than two seniors on the field at a time, but the future is now, especially with four straight Atlantic Coast Conference games coming up and probably no fellow ranked teams -- that phrase takes some getting used to -- on the schedule until November.

"The recognition is nice, but we've only played three games," Duffner said. "We've beaten two teams that were in the Top 25 and went to bowl games last year [North Carolina and West Virginia], but our focus is only on the next game. Forget about the bowl stuff. It's way too early to talk about that."

into Byrd Stadium and stayed there through a driving rain that compounded the miseries of West Virginia quarterback Chad Johnston, who was intercepted three times and was involved in two of the Mountaineers' four lost fumbles.

The Atlantic Coast Conference has been sending five teams to bowl games recently, and it is guaranteed four bowl berths.

Top-ranked Florida State is headed to one of the Bowl Alliance games, but invitations to the Gator, Peach and Carquest bowls can become popularity contests, and the kind of fan support Maryland got Saturday is in one way just as important as the resurgence on the field.

"I don't know what significance the crowd has beyond Saturday night," Duffner said. "All I know is that it meant the world to this team to have a crowd like that behind us."

Maryland finishes a three-game homestand Saturday against Duke, then it plays at Georgia Tech and Wake Forest, two teams it dominated last year.

One of the biggest coming challenges could be integrating record-setting quarterback/punter Scott Milanovich, who'll finish his four-game suspension for gambling Saturday, back into the lineup without disrupting team chemistry.

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