COLLEGE PARK — By winning four of its first five games, Maryland has already managed to double its win total from last year's downward spiral of a season.
But this year's most challenging stretch awaits: four road games in the next five weeks. It would be a difficult period for any team, but it is especially formidable for a Terps team that has made nine straight trips to opponents' stadiums without a win. The Terps appeared flustered by crowd noise, committing a handful of offensive penalties in the early stages of a 31-17 loss at West Virginia in their last away game Sept. 18. "Our guys have hopefully benefited from playing down at Morgantown," coach Ralph Friedgen said Tuesday.
In the past two seasons, Maryland (4-1, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) has been hampered on the road by driving rain (at Duke), a quarterback injury (at North Carolina State), a late special-teams collapse (at Florida State) and a defensive meltdown (at Wake Forest).
Entering Saturday's game at Clemson (2-3, 0-2 ACC), the team knows its ultimate success or failure this season won't be decided by three early wins at Byrd Stadium or the season-opening victory over Navy at M&T Bank Stadium. Rather, players and coaches say Maryland's bid for the sort of "comeback" year it promised its fans will largely be determined by how effectively it can stare down its demons in places such as Clemson's "Death Valley" and Miami's Sun Life Stadium.
"No doubt about it," Friedgen said without pausing when asked at his weekly media session whether a road win amounted to the missing ingredient in Maryland's recipe for success. "It's really the next thing that has to happen."
Maryland's quest to win an away game has come full circle.
Its last road win came at Clemson on Sept. 27, 2008, when a second-half comeback silenced 80,000 mostly orange-clad fans in a 20-17 victory. The game -- in which the Tigers lost a 17-6 lead -- contributed to the departure of Clemson coach Tommy Bowden soon after.
It's been so long since that victory that many Maryland players -- the Terps played 24 redshirt or true freshmen last season, a high for a Friedgen-coached team -- have never experienced winning on the road.
Among those who do remember that Clemson win is receiver-returner Torrey Smith, who scored his first career touchdown in the game. Like many other Terps, the redshirt junior considers winning at Death Valley -- the stadium is the largest in the ACC except for Florida State's -- among his most memorable games.
"Their fans are what college football's all about. They are rowdy," Smith said, a wide smile crossing his face. "All I remember is that I was a redshirt freshman and I was nervous. It was a big one."
The biggest wins of Maryland's past two seasons may both have come against the Tigers. The Terps beat Clemson, 24-21, last year for their only ACC win of a 2-10 season.
Friedgen is 3-1 against Clemson in games at Death Valley (officially called Memorial Stadium). The coach shook his head when asked about those successes Tuesday, anxious not to provide Clemson with extra motivation.
"We tried our best to give them that game last year," Friedgen said. "No, it was one of those days where the ball bounced right for us, to be honest. They missed a field goal at the end."
The game was highlighted by Clemson running back C.J. Spiller's 92-yard kickoff return despite losing a shoe on the play. Spiller is now with the NFL's Buffalo Bills but is expected to be at the game Saturday as his No. 28 jersey is retired -- a ceremony that could give the Tigers an emotional lift.
There are a number of factors that make games particularly challenging on the road. The away team is removed not only from its familiar stadium and supportive fans, but also from comforting routines.
Against West Virginia, Maryland's hotel was an 80-minute drive from Morgantown. The Terps had to get on their buses at about 8 a.m. to make it to the stadium. Like that game, the Clemson contest is a noon start.
"People are kind of tired on the bus" that early, said third-year defensive tackle Joe Vellano. "You've got to wake up fast."
Clemson has lost three games in a row, including a 21-16 defeat at North Carolina on Saturday. The Tigers are 2-3 -- the same record they had last season before winning six in a row.
Clemson is led by junior defensive end Da'Quan Bowers, who leads the ACC -- and is in the top five in the nation -- in sacks and tackles for loss.
On offense, running back Andre Ellington ranks third in the conference with 87 yards rushing per game.
Maryland has struggled to keep its defense off the field -- the Terps are worst in the ACC in allowing third-down conversions. But Maryland leads the conference in turnover margin and red-zone defense.
"We've got to go down there and play our best game of the year. There's no question about that," Friedgen said. "It would really help the growth of our football team."