At this time last year, A.J. Wallace thought he was part of something special. McDonough had just shut out its first two opponents by a combined 43-0, and the young Rams thought they were headed to the postseason.

Then they visited Northern. A 34-7 loss there started McDonough on a 1-7 skid to end the season. The Rams' offense topped 10 points only twice the rest of the way.

"We came into that game thinking we could run all over them," said Wallace, a junior running back. "That Northern game threw us off track. Had we won it, it would have been a whole different season for us."

A year later, Wallace and his teammates are looking at possibly the same scenario. The Rams, with starters returning at 17 positions from last season, opened this season with victories over Great Mills and Leonardtown. This week, however, when they host Northern, their schedule begins to take a markedly tougher turn.

Next week, McDonough visits Patuxent. Then the Rams will host Thomas Stone and Lackey on Oct. 8 and 15, respectively.

"If we win this one, it's big," Rams senior quarterback Cory Yates said. "This is definitely a steppingstone game for us. We can keep our confidence up with a win."

Yates said McDonough vastly underestimated Northern last season. He said he thought the Rams learned their lesson to take every opponent seriously, not only that night, but also six weeks later when they lost their season finale to then-winless La Plata.

But last week, it was clear they had not. McDonough had allowed Leonardtown to return both a punt and a kickoff for second-quarter touchdowns to take a 27-18 halftime lead. When the Rams convened at halftime, all the bad memories from last season were dredged up -- finger-pointing, poor preparation, and a general lack of poise.

"We were aggravated," Wallace said. "We knew we couldn't lose this game for what we want to do this season."

Yates said: "Last year's team never came back from anything. When we got down, we just kept going downhill. . . . But we said that nine points is nothing to us. We scored 48 in a half" against Great Mills.

Even though they escaped with a 32-27 victory, the Rams are still not certain how they will perform this week. They know this game could greatly affect the rest of their season.

"It's a big week for us to see how we respond," McDonough Coach Dave Bradshaw said. "We talked [this week] about how we came into that game [against Northern last year] feeling good and then won one more game after that."

Calvert at Westlake

When: 7 p.m. tomorrow.

Records: Calvert (0-2, 0-2), Westlake (2-0, 2-0).

Last week: Calvert lost to La Plata, 12-0. Westlake defeated Patuxent, 31-24, in overtime.

Last meeting: Westlake won, 26-0, on Sept. 23.

Outlook: Opponents have attempted to counter Westlake's stockpile of game-breakers by playing keep-away. The Wolverines have allowed Northern and Patuxent to take first-half leads while draining the clock, and that has caused Westlake's offense to sputter. "It's a bad habit to get into," Westlake Coach Dominic Zaccarelli said. "We've got to get out of the gates faster. We can't wait until the end of the game for [our players] to start playing." Junior Aaris Reed, however, seems to have been playing hard from the start; he rushed for three touchdowns against Northern and a career-best 179 yards and the winning score last week against Patuxent. The next three weeks will test Westlake's focus and drive to improve; the Wolverines visit 0-2 Chopticon and Great Mills after this game.

Great Mills at Lackey

When: 7 p.m. tomorrow.

Records: Great Mills (0-2, 0-2), Lackey (2-0, 2-0).

Last week: Great Mills lost to Thomas Stone, 33-7. Lackey defeated Chopticon, 45-6.

Last meeting: Lackey won, 48-0, on Sept. 20.

Outlook: If Lackey decides to let senior All-Met running back Morgan Green rest his ailing hamstring this week -- and even next week, too, against Leonardtown -- then it will just be another opportunity for junior quarterback Aaron Smith to grow more comfortable running the offense. Smith threw for four touchdowns last week, and in his first two starts has completed 19 of 29 passes for 340 yards and thrown only one interception. "I think he's becoming more and more confident each week," Lackey Coach Scott Chadwick said. "Last year, I think the kids on the team had confidence in him, but I don't think they thought he had confidence in himself." Even when Smith didn't throw last week, junior running back Avery Lancaster rushed for 92 yards on 11 carries in Green's place.

Huntingtown at Chopticon

When: 7 p.m. tomorrow.

Records: Huntingtown (0-2, 0-2), Chopticon (0-2, 0-2).

Last week: Huntingtown lost to Northern, 21-0. Chopticon lost to Lackey, 45-6.

First meeting.

Outlook: Both teams are struggling to get control of their offenses. Last week against Lackey, the Braves put senior Matu Threatt at quarterback on occasion, a position in which he completed two passes, including a touchdown to wide receiver Brandon Somerville. But they also left him split wide, where he had six receptions. Sophomore quarterback Justin McVerry seems to be learning on the fly, completing 27 passes for 316 yards in two games. It might take Huntingtown time to learn Coach Jerry Franks's offense, much like it took Northern a year to learn it before using it to make the playoffs last season. Most immediately, though, the Hurricanes need a stable running game. With the exception of Nathan Coates' 76-yard touchdown in the opener against Patuxent, the Hurricanes are averaging just 2.7 yards on their 68 carries.

Leonardtown at La Plata

When: 7 p.m. tomorrow.

Records: Leonardtown (0-2, 0-2), La Plata (2-0, 2-0).

Last week: Leonardtown lost to McDonough, 32-27. La Plata defeated Calvert, 12-0.

Last meeting: Leonardtown won, 38-35, in overtime, Sept. 20.

Outlook: La Plata has equaled its win total from the past two seasons combined. The Warriors were last 3-0 in 1998 and have added motivation after squandering a 14-point halftime lead to the Raiders last year. La Plata's double-wing offense has been solid -- senior running backs Travis McConnell and Ty Kisner are combining to average 5.5 yards per carry -- but unspectacular, and Leonardtown will test it. "They really come after you defensively," said McDonough Coach Dave Bradshaw, whose team struggled at times last week against the Raiders.

Thomas Stone at Patuxent

When: 7 p.m. tomorrow.

Records: Thomas Stone (2-0, 2-0), Patuxent (1-1, 1-1).

Last week: Thomas Stone defeated Great Mills, 33-7. Patuxent lost to Westlake, 31-24, in overtime.

Last meeting: Thomas Stone won, 26-7, Sept. 23.

Outlook: Patuxent -- and the rest of the SMAC, for that matter -- learned how good it is last week, going "toe-to-toe" with Westlake, according to Panthers Coach Steve Crounse. "We were one or two plays away from winning that game." Now, the Panthers will be a litmus test for Thomas Stone, which has won comfortably over two overmatched opponents -- Leonardtown and Great Mills. The Cougars' crowded backfield has been pared down after strong play by senior Scott Carroll and juniors Tanner Mills (111 yards last week) and Patrick Swearinger (four touchdowns). Defensively, junior Nekos Brown is starting to emerge at tackle.

McDonough running back A.J. Wallace said Northern "threw us off track" last year. "Had we won it, it would have been a whole different season for us," he said.Rams quarterback Cory Yates says tomorrow's game against Northern could be a "steppingstone" for his team. "If we win this one, it's big," he said.