There are some who look at the Maryland secondary with a sense of impending doom, an uneasiness that seems to be present each week.

Could they handle Michigan's speed? Would Georgia Tech's precision destroy them? How many big plays would Wake Forest make? Although each team had its moments, on the whole the expected bloodletting never has come to pass.

Even so, while the Terps prepare for Saturday's game against a Duke team that has thrown for 1,455 yards and eight touchdowns, the feeling lingers.

"People look at us and see that we're not the tallest secondary in the world so they think they can throw over us, then they think we're slow so they can run past us," said cornerback Scott Rosen. "In some of the games we've given up one big play, so people see that and think that we're vulnerable.

"That may be the only play we've allowed all game, but they see it and think they'll be able to do it all day. But we've done a good job. Our speed is misleading -- we can stay with people -- and when the pressure is on and we need a play, we're able to do it."

That ability now includes making interceptions. Cornerback Michael Hollis got the first two pickoffs for the unit in last week's 41-13 victory over Wake Forest.

"Now that that's not over our heads anymore I think we have even more confidence," said Hollis. "We've gotten better all season, now we just have to keep playing loose."

The secondary's performance should be one of two key factors in deciding the game in Durham, N.C. The other is how well Maryland's offense controls the ball against a defense that yields almost 249 rushing yards per game. The Terrapins (4-3, 2-2 in the ACC) gained 280 against Wake Forest; duplicating that performance will help keep the ball away from Duke's explosive offense.

Although they have struggled to reach the .500 mark and are looking for their first ACC win after losses to Virginia and Clemson, the Blue Devils have two quarterbacks, Billy Ray and David Brown, in the top five in passing efficiency in the league.

Brown has thrown for 818 yards and four touchdowns, Ray 582 yards and four touchdowns. Marc Mays and Aaron Shaw rank third and fourth in the ACC in receptions. Running back Randy Cuthbert is ninth, and has rushed for 347 yards.

"They're a good football team, to underestimate them would be a mistake," said Maryland assistant coach Kurt Van Valkenburgh. "They have an offense that can score easily and bother you. They move the ball and if you're not careful you get frustrated."

Last season Ray completed 20 of 32 passes for 308 yards and three touchdowns in Duke's 46-25 win at Byrd Stadium. Hines caught seven passes for 137 yards and Cuthbert carried 28 times for 164 yards. "My head was on a swivel all day," said Terps strong safety Ron Reagan, who made his first career start that day.

That game was part of a nightmarish season when injuries forced adjustments on what seemed like a daily basis. Although players such as Reagan gained experience, most observers felt the secondary would be the weakest link of a talented defensive unit.

Rosen and free safety Mike Thomas have always been strong supporting against the run, but their ability to cover has been considered suspect.

Even after Maryland yielded an average of just 162 yards in its first four games, few suspected the Terrapins would be a match for Michigan.

Jon Vaughn, the nation's leading rusher, was shut down and Michigan completed 16 of 26 passes for just 209 yards. However, the Wolverines got a 37-yard, first-down scoring pass from Elvis Grbac to Desmond Howard. That play points out the secondary's biggest problem: Maryland is allowing 182 passing yards per game and its 31 percent third-down conversion is the fourth-best in the ACC, but opponents have had a great deal of success throwing on first and second downs.

Georgia Tech threw for a season-high 271 yards against Maryland. Of that total, 175 came on first- and second-down plays.

"Some situations, like on third and long, I think we're the best team in the country," said assistant coach Greg Williams. "And sometimes, a secondary's job isn't always playing the pass; those things we do very well but we do have problems with play-action passes and I'd like to see us get better on the early downs."