For the last month, the Maryland Terrapins have insisted they are a different team from those of years just past. Now, caught between a disappointing loss to Clemson and possibly missing several starters when a talented North Carolina State team visits Byrd Stadium on Saturday, they must prove it.
"This is the turning point of the season," said linebacker Glenn Page. "I consider it the biggest game of the year. We can go 1-1 in the conference and still be in the race and our overall record will be 3-1, which would give us our confidence back going into Michigan."
The reference to Michigan, which hosts the Terps the week after this second straight ACC game, is one of the few times a Maryland player has looked beyond the next game.
After all, Coach Joe Krivak said, "Doing things in your mind, thinking about this and that, makes you lose track of what you have to do at the present time and we can't afford to do that."
If Clemson wanted to focus on its game two weeks hence, and avenge a 21-17 loss to Duke that cost it a share of last year's ACC championship, it would be able to, given that the foe this weekend is Appalachian State. Maryland has no such breathers and its task against the Wolfpack is made tougher because one of the the coaching staff's biggest fears -- injuries -- materialized, a number of players hobbled after the 18-17 defeat by the Tigers.
Defensive back Ron Reagan, who missed the Clemson game with a sprained ankle, likely will miss Saturday's game. The same applies to offensive guard Ron Staffileno, who has a tender left shoulder.
Nose guard Rick Fleece, who also missed the Clemson game, is questionable with an ankle sprain. So are linebackers Scott Whittier (thigh) and Jack Bradford (knee) and Reagan's replacement at safety, Johnny Vessels.
"We don't have the depth where we can afford to lose these people," said Krivak. "I'm concerned but you have to get the next guy out there and hope he performs like everybody else."
Maryland's 1989 season crumbled in similar circumstances. The tendency after close losses then was to point fingers. But not now.
"There are a lot of eyes on us now and we know that we have to watch what we say and what we do," said Bradford. "So far we've been able to deal with everything in a positive way. There's a lot of maturity on this team and now we have a little depth -- we can afford an injury here and there.
"The defense must go on. I don't think there'll be a letup at all. Our second-team players are capable of playing as well as the starters. That's one difference from last year or the year before. Everyone on the second team has experience."
According to Krivak, there has been no cessation of the positive feelings that have imbued the 1990 team. That speaks to Maryland's confidence; even after the loss to the 16th-ranked Tigers, the Terrapins insisted they were the better club.
Maryland's three turnovers and missed opportunities spelled the difference in the game. The Terrapins were good enough to get away with similar spotty stretches against Virginia Tech and West Virginia, but falling short against Clemson may speak to where the team falls in the ACC hierarchy.
"That's why this game is pivotal," said wide receiver Barry Johnson. "I don't think you'll be able to win the conference with two losses and we feel like we've let one slip away. Now we have to win to establish ourselves as one of the better teams in the conference."
A month ago, that thought might have been laughable, with more than a few people thinking Maryland would be lucky to win three games all season.
"I think we're almost there but that's the fine line," said Page. "We played hard and Clemson played hard but they won because they took advantage of our mistakes and didn't really give us the same opportunities.
"We're just a step off. If the offense doesn't turn the ball over inside the 20, if the defense doesn't give up points in the fourth quarter like we've done against Clemson and West Virginia. The offense is going to get better about scoring points and then there'll be less pressure on the defense and we'll be better all around."
Maryland's defense has been on the field for 228 plays, more than any other team in the ACC -- 34 more than Clemson and 35 more than N.C. State. Virginia is second highest with 209 defensive plays but its offense has scored so many points that the defense is constantly returned to action. Conversely, Maryland's offense ranks last in rushing with 60 yards a game and in scoring, averaging 17 points.