When North Carolina State and Maryalnd take the field Saturday afternoon in Raleigh the players may feel as if they are looking in a mirror.
Both teams have been riddled by injuries. Both teams are coming off poor performances. Both teams lost Saturday largely because of crucial turnovers in their own territory.
And both teams know a victory could make or break their seasons.
"It's sort of like two years ago when Maryland came in here after losing two games in a row," Wolfpack Coach Bo Rein said yesterday. "Maybe they feel like this is it for them. It doesn't really matter what the record is, though. We expect a very physical football game."
No football coach has yet lived who did not expect a physical football game.
But when Maryland and State get together that cliche has some meaning. Both teams depend largely on their offensive and defensive lines.
The Terps might have a slight advantage at the defensive skill positions -- linebacker and the secondary, while State might have an edge at the offensive skill spots.
One of the main reasons the Wolf-pack might have an advantage on offense is quarterback Scott Smith. The 6-foot-2-inch senior is, according to Rein, one of the most improved players in the conference, having developed from question mark status a year ago into a solid all-round player this year.
"Scott has always been a good athlete; we knew that when he came here," Rein said. But he's also worked very hard on what he's weak at and turned himself into a better thrower with better quickness and speed."
Smith stepped into a tough role a year ago, replacing Johnny Evans, State's Mr. Everything, and leading his team to a 9-3 record and a victory over Pittsburgh in the Tangerine Bowl. But that was with Ted Brown in the backfield. With Brown gone, Smith has been doing more this year.
"I'm not trying to do everything, to make one big play and set the world on fire," Smith said yesterday. "I know we've got the kind of skilled runners and receivers that if I get the ball in their hands enough times they'll get the job done.
"But it is different from last year. Then, it was still a learning experience for me. I was just out there trying not to make a mistake that would kill us. Now, I feel a lot more confident in my throwing and in my control of the team on the field."
State, 4-1 overall and 2-0 in the ACC, has a veteran team, with eight seniors on the offensive unit.But the man considered to be the top player, if not the top player in the conference, is All-America center Jim Ritcher. i
The 6-foot-3, 245-pound senior can bench press 425 pounds and run the 40 in an amazing 4.65 seconds. To say pro scouts are drooling over him is like saying snow in october is unusual.
Maryland Coach Jerry Claiborne says Ritcher is "as good an offensive football player as I've ever seen."
Rein uses a former Claiborne player to describe Ritcher. "Remember how much Randy White meant to Maryland's defense?" he said. "That's how much Jim means to our offensive. He is just a superb football player, an unusually talented athlete."
Ritcher is also an unusually nice person, who is refreshingly honest when he talks about the pressures of being an All-America as a junior.
"It's nice to be recognized; I've enjoyed that," he said. "But sometimes it's sort of hard to live up to what people expect of you after all the publicity. It puts extra pressure on you; no doubt about it. It's something you have to think about. You can't help it.
Once in a while I wonder if I'm as good as people say I am, if I can be as good as they expect me to be."
Ritcher and his offensive mates will have to be good Saturday because State's defense is hurting.
Both starting linebackers, Dann Lute and Robert Abraham, suffered knee bruises -- on, the same play -- in State's 44-31 loss to Auburn on Saturday and both are doubtful for Saturday. In addition, All-ACC defensive tackle Simon Gupton suffered a leg injury seven minutes later and is also doubtful for Staurday.
The Wolfpack had already lost another linebacker, James Butler, for the season with a knee injury and another inside linebacker, Marvin Gale, hurt a knee in practice last week. One offensive tackle, Todd Eckerson is out with a broken leg and the other, Chris Koehne, is questionable with yet another knee injury.
With Maryland's injuries, this game should probably be played on the set of "General Hospital." Rein was disappointed in the way his team reacted to the injuries last week and hopes a week of practice will cure the problem.
"Instead of rallying around each other, the rest of the kids got despondent and played like that the whole game," Rein said. "We didn't take up the slack. The defense played poorly. We did enough things wrong in every phase of the game to get beat."
The loss was disappointing for Rein because one of his goals this season with a senior-oriented team was to break the school record of nine victories in a season. Now, with Maryland this week, undefeated North Carolina next week, and Clemson in two weeks, his team comes to a crucial stage in a season in which it was picked to walk off with the ACC title.
"We have to be resilient," Rein said. "The loss could either take a lot out of us or we could bounce back and play our best football right now and put a lock on the conference.
"Having a lot of seniors, one of my jobs is to keep them from getting all tight because this is their last time around. They were down in practice early but now we're slowly putting it behind us."
Or as Smith put it: "We haven't put a complete game together yet this year. If I knew why, I'd be in great shape. But we've put Auburn behind us now and we're hoping Maryland will be our best game."
Ritcher has kept the game in perspective however: "They're our biggest game this week," he said.