"A reason?"

Emory Bellard was astonished.

Someone had asked the Mississippi State football coach a real toughie.

"What could the reason be?" Bellard said.

You'd have thought someone asked the Xs and Os man to explain Sartre's existentialism.

The question was: Why couldn't Mississippi State catch a kickoff? Of Maryland's first five kickoffs yesterday, Mississippi State muffed or fumbled four.

"They know how to catch it," Bellard said, a trace of frustration in his Texas drawl. "They can catch it. They didn't today, though; I don't know what would be the reason."

"We just didn't field the ball," said running back James Jones.

"Just a big mixup," said running back Donald Ray King.

"You tell me," said quarterback Tony Black.

Maybe they forgot their first basemen's mitts.

Maybe they thought it was basketball season and they had to dribble the ball.

Maybe this was all a Disney movie in which the little kid kicker -- let's call him Dale Castro -- invents a magic potion that he spreads on the football whenever he kicks it, causing the pigskin to take wing on field goal tries, causing it to squirm out of the opponent's hands.

Look, nobody promised you Shakespeare on the sports pages, and it's more fun, anyway, to believe Castro is touched by magic than to listen to some old Texas football coach talk about how he didn't know why his boys were dropping it but it sure as shootin' gave them turribl' field position.

"We were givin' the ball to 'em in four down territory all the time," Bellard said. And offensively, we always had a bucketful of grass in front of us to go."

In English, that means Maryland took possession of the ball so close to the State end zone that it could run four plays without having to punt; also, that bucketful of grass means State always had about 70-hundred miles to go to get a touchdown because its guys were always playing handball with kickoffs.

"They'd kick it off, we'd fumble and they'd kick a field goal," they'd kick a field goal."

Thrilling.

Maryland won, 35-14. It wasn't that close. Maryland played its reserves the last 24 minutes after building a 26-0 lead. When it was 32-0, Maryland was on a streak in which it had outscored Villanova, Clemson and Mississippi State, 58-0, over a stretch of time beginning in the last minute of a 24-20 victory over Villanova. That is impressive work against the Seven Dwarfs, let alone teams including the defending ACC champion and an SEC team with 46 lettermen.

Jerry Claiborne's Maryland teams are marked by the conservatism he learned at the knee of Bear Bryant. Give the ball to the tailback 30 times a day. Get close enough to kick a field goal. Take no offensive risks. Build a defense that is quick, strong and determined to fall on top of fleeing quarterbacks.

Because it was such a rout, tailback Charlie Wysocki carried the ball only 20 times, gaining only 139 yards. The kicker, our Disney hero Dale Castro, who booted four field goals last week, added five more yesterday for a total of 10 straight. And the defense was -- well, listen to State quarterback Tony Black, making his first start ever.

"Pretty tough all day," Black said.

Black was sacked for 48 yards in losses.

At 26-0, for example, Black thought to pass on fourth-and-five from the Maryland 13-yard line.

About two steps away from the line, Black thought he felt something about to fall on him.

It was Mike Corvino, a Maryland freshman tackle.

"I just dropped back and was keeping my eyes downfield," Black said. "So I didn't see anybody."

Corvino collapsed on the quarterback. A 10-yard loss.

"They were awful quick," Black said of the Maryland defenders who limited Mississippi State to a poor 167 yards. "They got back to me in a hurry, yes, sir."

So effective was Maryland's defense, both up front and in the secondary, that Black never had a chance to use State's best offensive weapon, split end Mardye McDole. If Black aimed any of his 11 passes at McDole, no one knows it.

"They had two men on McDole all the time," Black said. "So we had to go to someone else and try to get them one-on-one."

Black shrugged. He completed four passes all day.

"Just a bad day," he said. "Everything went wrong."

Maryland was a solid team with Wysocki doing the job on the ground and quarterback Mike Tice, though operating with an aching right shoulder, completing eight of 14 passes for 98 yards -- five of them to wide receiver Jan Carinci, who made two sensational catches in traffic.

Last week, Maryland's defenders, even depleted by injuries to two outstanding backs, allowed Clemson only 195 yards, the first time in 44 games that the ACC champs didn't reach 200 yards.

Before Maryland zealots begin crying out for a shot at the dread nemesis, Penn State, that comes to Byrd Stadium in two weeks, they ought to remember that Mississippi State was spectacularly dreadful yesterday.

"To help them, and to aid them to the extent we did, makes it look easy," Bellard said.

Alan Hartlein, a State tackle, was asked what he thought of the day's proceedings.

A cliche leaped to his tongue.

But he wouldn't speak it.

"I started to say, 'You can't win 'em all,' " Hartlein said. "But we can't say you can't win 'em all because we ain't even won one yet."