Normally, a game against Wake Forest would not engender the same uneasy feelings as with Clemson, Georgia Tech or even North Carolina State. But Maryland no longer can afford to stumble if its promise to rise above the morass of recent years is to come to pass.

So Saturday's homecoming date against the Demon Deacons has become the first of five crucial games for the Terrapins.

"Now we have to take every team the same way -- we can't afford to take anyone lightly," wide receiver Barry Johnson said yesterday.

Less than a week ago, Maryland's next three games -- against Wake Forest, North Carolina and Duke, teams that have a combined 8-8 record -- seemed like a perfect springboard into the ACC race, the national polls and perhaps the chase for a bowl bid.

But a 45-17 loss to No. 1 Michigan, followed by a humbling 31-3 rout by No. 18 Georgia Tech, has changed the perspective -- at least outside the team's locker room.

"The public usually runs hot and cold. If you're doing really well, people are there to hang around and let you know, and if you're not they let you know -- and then they leave," said Johnson. "The perspective has changed in that sense, but we still want to win the rest of our games; if people don't think we can do that, that's their problem. Whether we'll be able to do it is ours."

Maryland still is two games ahead of a year ago, when losses to Michigan and Georgia Tech left the Terrapins 1-5. But in the next game Maryland easily won at Wake Forest, 27-7. After that, Maryland lost to Duke, beat North Carolina, tied Penn State and lost to Virginia.

Coach Joe Krivak credited last season's team with playing hard through the end of the year despite its poor start. And though he said he has no doubt this year's team will do the same, that may not be good enough for him to retain his job, which is in the final season of his contract.

"It all boils down to one thing -- you've got to win," Krivak said yesterday at his weekly news conference. "Schedule, closeness, all that stuff doesn't mean a lick when it boils down to the final analysis. W's and L's are the only thing that counts -- not how close you played or how hard you played or how good you played."

Maryland has the same season-ending schedule as last year, but after its promising 3-1 start another 2-2-1 conclusion likely would be regarded as a disappointment for the Terrapins, who -- at least before last Saturday -- considered themselves one of the top teams in the ACC.

"It's a little weird that we have to prove ourselves all over again," said linebacker Jack Bradford. "Last week was a setback but we'll bounce back and win. We have to play better than we've played all year because Wake Forest won't be a pushover."

A victory Saturday also is important for Maryland because it is the last home game of the season. There also is the spectre of the decision regarding the future of Krivak and his staff.

There was more than a little grumbling among the 31,941 in attendance at Byrd Stadium during last Saturday's struggle, particularly with an offense that failed to move the ball consistently. But assistant coach Tony Whittlesey, Krivak's offensive coordinator, argued that criticism is unjustified.

"We've lost three games; one of them by one point to Clemson, which is in the top 15; one to Michigan, which is No. 1, and one to Georgia Tech, which is 18th," he said. "We have a chance to win a lot more ballgames. There will be plenty of time to catch grief if we don't -- and maybe we should if we don't -- but not until the time comes. Right now, we've been beaten by two better teams, that's all."