COLLEGE PARK — The alumni who returned for Saturday's homecoming game witnessed a scene that could hardly have been imagined a year ago.
There was Maryland throwing four touchdown passes, blocking two punts and returning two interceptions for scores to sail past Wake Forest, 62-14 -- its largest victory margin in an Atlantic Coast Conference game in eight years.
There was Maryland recording its sixth win of the season to become eligible for a bowl game.
There was Maryland (6-2, 3-1 ACC) -- one of three Atlantic Division teams with only one conference loss -- positioning itself for what now emerges as a big game next Saturday against the Miami Hurricanes (5-3, 3-2 ACC), whose starting quarterback, Jacory Harris, was knocked out of an upset loss to Virginia.
The contrast was striking. A year ago, the Terps lost their homecoming contest to Virginia in a dreary rain. Saturday was sunny and crisp, and the announced 39,063 saw Maryland's most dominant ACC performance since a 59-7 rout of North Carolina in 2002. It was the most points the Terps have scored in a conference game since 1975, when Maryland defeated Virginia, 62-24.
"Now we're bowl-eligible, and these next four weeks are probably the most important four weeks in our players' lives," coach Ralph Friedgen said.
It was the sort of game that could allow fans to dream that Maryland, which endured its worst season last year under Friedgen, has turned the corner.
"Just thinking of where we were last year and, to me, it's a lesson in perseverance," Friedgen said.
Last year's team was hurt by turnovers. This year, Maryland -- which picked up two more turnovers on Saturday and turned both into touchdowns -- has collected 10 more fumbles and interceptions than its opponents.
Special teams coordinator Charles Bankins, who helped orchestrate the punt blocks, said it's hard to overstate how much the team's success means to Friedgen and the other coaches.
"You go through the worst season in the history of the school and now you're 6-2," Bankins said.
Of course, a reality check is needed.
Maryland's Atlantic Division push has benefited from favorable scheduling so far. Saturday marked the third straight game in which the Terps were playing a team that had lost at least three games in a row. The Terps have defeated only one Division I-A team (Navy) with a winning record.
Still, the Terps have beaten the teams they are supposed to -- and have seemed to get better in the process.
Quarterback Danny O'Brien, a redshirt freshman, has seemed to improve his command of the West Coast offense each week. O'Brien's four touchdown passes Saturday were the most for a Maryland quarterback since Joel Statham in 2004. O'Brien entered Saturday's game with nine touchdown passes -- already a Maryland freshman record.
Trying to buy time for its reconfigured offensive line, Maryland has been relying heavily on screens and other short passes -- and did so again against Wake. O'Brien's longest completion was 35 yards.
"I think we're starting to come into our own as an offense," said O'Brien, who turned 20 last month -- and looks even younger -- but plays with obvious poise.
"He doesn't get rattled if he makes a mistake," Friedgen said. "I think he's going to continue to get better, I really do."
O'Brien benefited Saturday from a running game that accumulated 261 yards against a Wake rushing defense ranked next-to-last in the ACC. The Terps had rushed for fewer than 50 yards in each of the past two games. But on Saturday, Maryland -- led by Davin Meggett and Da'Rel Scott -- had topped 100 rushing yards by halftime as the Terps took a 27-7 lead.
Maryland set the tone quickly when LaQuan Williams deflected the first punt of the game, giving the Terps possession at Wake Forest's 32.
"Our line was a little out of place, and that didn't help," said Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe, whose team has now lost six in row.
The Terps capitalized with a field goal, making it 3-0. Williams (Poly) also caught a 24-yard touchdown pass that made it 41-7 in the third quarter.
Trailing badly, Wake Forest had to pass -- a tactic that minimized its most dangerous weapon, running back Josh Harris (10 carries, 27 yards). Overall, the Deacons had minus 3 yards rushing.
Maryland linebacker Nick Peterson blocked another punt in the second quarter, setting up a 3-yard touchdown pass from O'Brien to fullback Haroon Brown.
"Our philosophy is put pressure on every kick," Bankins said. "We noticed the snap was a little wide at times."
It was the first game in which Wake Forest (2-6, 1-4) had a punt blocked in more than three years. It was that sort of day for the Terps.
"Right now we are in a perfect position to make the run that we have always wanted to make," Maryland nose tackle A.J. Francis said.