Three weeks ago, it would have been difficult -- maybe even impossible -- to find a dozen people who would say publicly that defense would be the strength of this year's Maryland football team. Yet, through the first three weeks of the season, it's the usually overlooked, even somewhat previously maligned defense that is nationally ranked in three categories.

"The last few years, when people have thought of Maryland they've thought offense," defensive tackle Scott Tye said yesterday. "The first thing they ask is, 'How many points are they gonna score?' The offense deserves all the credit they get because they're proven. But we've played pretty good, haven't we?"

The defense has been better than pretty good. Maryland is 10th in the country in rushing defense, allowing 69 yards per game; 10th in scoring defense, allowing 11 points per game, and 13th in total defense, allowing 267 yards per game.

The Terrapins, who recorded 25 quarterback sacks last season, already have 16 after the first three games. And Coach Bobby Ross says flatly, "(Defensive backs) Donald Brown, Al and Keeta Covington have played very well. In fact, it clearly is the best secondary we've had here (in Ross' four seasons)."

Through the final five games last season, the Maryland defense allowed nearly 30 points per game, but it went largely overlooked because the offense was averaging nearly 40. So far, the defense has seemed greatly improved, with Saturday's 28-0 shutout of West Virginia the highlight.

"I would have thought it difficult to shut out anybody, anymore," Ross said. "So in that respect, we're a little ahead of what I expected, defensively. But they're playing about the way I thought they would."

Maryland's defensive efficiency can be broken down into several categories: a dominating pass rush; uncommon (for Maryland) speed in the secondary allowing more flexibility in pass coverage; depth at almost every position; the consistently superb play of linebacker Chuck Faucette, and overall experience.

Ross and the defensive players all say experience is the biggest difference from last year to this, considering that most of the top 22 defensive players played regularly last season.

Probably the second most important factor in Maryland's defensive improvement is the balance between pressure on the quarterback and secondary coverage. "The combination of pass rush and coverage is the best we've ever had," Ross said.

Of the 16 sacks, 11 have come from the top five defensive linemen. Guard Bruce Mesner has four and reserve guard Bob Arnold has three. Almost as important, Maryland's front has put constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks. It recorded four sacks against West Virginia quarterback John Talley, whose strength supposedly is avoiding a rush.

"Our biggest strength (up front) is speed," said Tye, who has two sacks. "Our pursuit to the ball has been unbelievable. Arnold and Mesner have been making plays all the way across on the other side of the line."

Maryland has also made a couple of adjustments that have helped increase effectiveness of the pass rush. "We're doing more team stunts now than we have in the past," left tackle Ted Chapman said. "It's more a team pass rush than an individual rush."

Said Brown, the right cornerback: "The guys in the secondary haven't really been tested yet because of the defensive line; they're always in the quarterback's face. And I hope it stays that way."

But Chapman said the backs must be covering well because it is taking opposing quarterbacks longer to find receivers.

In between, the Terrapins also have gotten good play from the linebackers. The Maryland coaches had to be concerned about replacing all-America Eric Wilson, last year's signal-caller and defensive captain. But Faucette has filled Wilson's role superbly. He leads the team with 31 tackles and two interceptions.

"He's got the idea that he's gonna go out and just rip somebody's head off every time, and that's what you need from your middle linebacker," Chapman said.

Ross says the defense has gotten just about what it needs from every position, even from the reserves in what Ross calls "situational defenses." The Terrapins are five deep at outside linebacker and at least two deep at each of the defensive line positions.

"They're all just playing with a lot of confidence," Ross said. "We were always a little cautious when we reached third-and-eight, third-and-nine situations. We're not worrying about that anymore."

If it wasn't for an interception returned for a touchdown (by Penn State, which still counts in scoring defense statistics), Maryland would rank fourth nationally with 8.6 points per game allowed.

"I told one guy, this would be the year of the defense at Maryland," Brown said. "If we keep progressing, five games down the road there's no telling what we can do."