When Maryland fullback Rick Badanjek was being tackled at the end of a 17-yard run Saturday against Wake Forest, all he could think of was how good it felt.

"I knew I was starting to run like last year again, and I thought, 'Dang, this feels so good, instead of those three- and four-yard gains I'd been getting the first two weeks,' " Badanjek said yesterday.

Badanjek, a 5-foot-9, 223-pound junior fullback, scored 18 touchdowns his first two seasons but was not nearly as productive as he expected to be the first two games of this season, both of which Maryland lost. But in the 38-17 victory over Wake Forest, Badanjek rushed 17 times for 104 yards. As teammate Stephon Scriber said, "You could see the excitement was back in him."

Maryland has fast, versatile halfbacks in Alvin Blount and Tommy Neal and a very capable backup fullback in Scriber. But Badanjek's importance to the offense -- especially in short-yardage situations when he is almost always successful -- cannot be overestimated.

In his first two seasons, Maryland had Willie Joyner and Dave D'Addio in the backfield. Defenses didn't treat Badanjek as the primary back. They do now.

"Rick is very important," Coach Bobby Ross said. "He establishes the tempo and an attitude back there. He has to be the leader back there."

Badanjek, the most experienced of the backs, feels about the same way, which is why he was so disturbed after the first two games. Against Syracuse, he rushed 16 times for 51 yards; against Vanderbilt the following week, he ran 11 times for 34 yards.

"I don't necessarily think Rick was solely responsible for (those numbers)," Ross said. "There were a combination of factors."

But Badanjek didn't worry about the other factors. "After the first two games I looked at the films and I was walking back to the dorm and said, 'There were a lot of things you're not doing right.' I wasn't getting pad under pad," Badanjek said of the technique a back uses to propel a defensive player.

"It looked like I was trying to be a dancer. I told myself to stop that and run people over like I used to," Badanjek said. "I'm not one of those sweet backs who puts all the moves into it. I have to keep my feet moving and move forward."

Scriber said he thought Badanjek was playing as hard as ever, but added, "Something wasn't there. I think he was running too straight-up. Believe it or not, as short as he is, that extra lean or tilt can give a back some extra yards. Rick doesn't say much, but I know he wasn't real happy about his first two performances."

Ross said he thought Badanjek's play improved in Maryland's victory over West Virginia, when he gained 69 yards in 17 carries. "He made some good runs in that game," Ross said, "not big-yardage plays, but he was getting pad under pad and making good runs."

Badanjek recalled a conversation he and Ross had before that game. "Coach Ross said, 'You're a 100-yard back,' and he was right," Badanjek said. "That's one reason I wanted 100 yards so badly against Wake Forest. And I was happy after the game. I was the first one in the locker room singing the fight song. It was the first time in a while I felt good about something because I did something I knew I could do."

Badanjek also scored two touchdowns in that game and caught two passes for 25 yards.

"I did put a little pressure on myself this year," Badanjek said. "But I feel good again, and we have a really good backfield with Alvin, Tommy and Stef. The more carries, the more yards, the more fun."