In the glory and dazzle of Maryland's final five games last football season, when the Terrapins averaged 38 points per game, it's easily forgotten that their defense allowed nearly 30 points per game.

So, the question going into this season, with Maryland ranked so highly, is: Will the defense be better? And with such a fabulous offense, does it matter what the defense does?

After all, Maryland gave up 40 points to Miami, but scored 42; gave up 34 to Virginia but scored 45; 23 to Clemson but scored 41.

"You can't live like that," Gib Romaine, Maryland's defensive coordinator, said yesterday. "If you're planning to win, you still have to play good defense. Yes, it is important that the defense is better."

Coach Bobby Ross went even further. "I think our defense, rather than wondering if it needs to be better, will be better. In fact, I'm counting on it. I know we're going to run better on defense . . . We're moving to the ball better (so far in practice)."

The coaches and defensive players all point to one major reason why they believe the defense will be improved: experience. Nine starters return and linebackers Richard Petitbon and Sean Scott saw considerable action last season.

That provides quite a contrast to 1984, when Maryland began the season without a single tackle who had previously played the position. "We were worried about just lining up," Romaine said. "Now we've got experience at every position, two deep in some spots."

Just like on offense, some of the defensive backups are good enough that the starters have had to work hard through these two-a-day practices to retain their jobs.

Even though senior linebackers Bobby DePaul and Kevin Donas are finished because of knee injuries, DePaul said the linebacking is better than at any time in his four years at Maryland.

"Hey, those guys don't need me," DePaul said.

Two of the linemen with starting experience -- junior guard Tommy Parker and sophomore guard Duane Dunham -- are currently No. 2 on the depth chart.

"The experience is a big deal," cornerback Donald Brown said. "Last year, Keeta Covington (the other cornerback) and I just stepped in. We were playing off talent more than anything else, at first. That'll be different now."

Covington feels it has to be different this year. "We have to be better because we're not going to surprise anybody. This year, everybody will be shooting for us."

The Terrapins didn't play badly on defense throughout the season. As Ross pointed out, "If the defense didn't play as well as they did in the first two games, Syracuse and Vanderbilt would have blown us out." And the defense played well in a big victory over West Virginia the next week that marked Maryland's turnaround.

But the last five games were nothing for the defense to be especially proud of, even if it was facing high-powered teams.

"We know we didn't play well the last few games," Neal Sampson, the starting right guard, said. "It's difficult to explain what happened. But I think some of it was due to the fact that, subconsciously, we knew that the offense could do so well."

The Maryland defense, even while allowing 29.4 points per game over the last five games, had some bright moments. The Terrapins shut down Clemson for the second half and held Tennessee to six points in the second half after yielding 21 in the first half.

The Maryland players and coaches think a year's experience should improve matters. "Maturity should end some of that inconsistency," Romaine said.

A realistic goal, Romaine said, is to hold the opposition to two touchdowns, or to no more than 17 points. "Years ago," he said, "you would say one touchdown or 10 points. But teams are so powerful now.

"What happened to us last year you couldn't pinpoint. There was no one area or individual; there were a lot of small breakdowns. You keep hearing everyone talk about experience. Everyone has to make an actual improvement, but having done it before should really help us."

Maryland had two anxious moments yesterday afternoon. The first came when starting left tackle Tony Edwards injured his right foot before practice and limped off the field and into a truck that took him for X-rays.

It turned out that Edwards suffered nothing more serious than a sprain. Ross said he doesn't expect him to miss much practice time.

And Ross said it turned out that junior running back Tommy Neal sustained a hyperextended knee, which shouldn't keep him out long.

The team had contact for the first time, working on goal-line situations. "It was a good, hard, tough practice," Ross said. "The kids are working through things well. At this point, I've got to feel pretty good about the progress we're making."