According to Maryland kicker Dan DeArmas, "The whole deal is, if we had beaten North Carolina, we'd be talking about bowl games, not Coach Krivak."

However, in the aftermath of the distressing 34-10 loss to the Tar Heels 12 days ago, talk of postseason play has dissipated at College Park while questions about Joe Krivak's future surface anew.

In the final year of a four-year contract and with a record of 17-24-1, definitive answers probably won't come until after Maryland's final games against No. 21 Penn State and No. 11 Virginia, when Krivak and Athletic Director Andy Geiger evaluate the direction of the program.

What Geiger will see, a number of players said yesterday, is a lifelong assistant who has learned what it takes to become a head coach. His players also said Krivak is a man who is not solely to blame for the travails during his tenure.

"Some of the younger guys are uncertain of what the future holds, but the upperclassmen want him to stay," said DeArmas, a junior. "There's been a definite improvement as the years have gone by.

"He's always been a great offensive master, but being a head coach takes more hands-on work than you get from up in the press box. It's taken some time but he's done a better job of being a leader. He's motivated us this year and he's helped us in terms of being someone to look up to.

"He has a lot to learn, but so do we -- it's been a growing experience for all of us. That's been kind of neat because we all came in at the same time. I've noticed in him and I'm sure he's noticed in us how hard he's tried and how hard we've tried."

That wasn't the case during the early portion of Krivak's tenure, added senior linebacker Jack Bradford, who said that "in the first few years, there were guys who didn't want to play for him. Now, though, the guys have really been his recruiting classes.

"The guys here want to play for him and that's made the atmosphere better. And he's becoming a better coach. He's become more relaxed and he knows more about the total game so he's been able to communicate with all the players better."

One of the more enduring criticisms of Krivak is that he's a poor motivator. The coach disputed that charge recently, arguing that finishing with a 2-2-1 record in the final five games a year ago after a 1-5 start should be proof enough that he can make a team play hard.

One player said yesterday that if there is any internal criticism of the coach, it's not motivation, but rather a reluctance to break away from the past in an effort to improve the present and future.

"According to the coaching staff, the methods they use with us have worked before and it's just a matter of them working with us," he said. "And how can we speculate on what's good or bad? These are the only guys a lot of us have played for. They feel justified in doing things the same way because they've seen them work, but there are some players who say it hasn't worked for us so maybe we should be doing something else."

There are changes going on at Maryland. The first phase of improvements to Byrd Stadium began yesterday, as workers began tearing down the press box. Senior wide receiver Barry Johnson envisions Krivak's future somehow being connected to the ongoing project.

"The school is getting ready to make a lot of changes in terms of things like facilities, and there are a lot of financial obligations," Johnson said. "All that won't be finished for a few years. Do they want to bring in someone new while all of it's going on or do they want some sense of order? If they're saying they want to make changes across the board, maybe they won't keep him."

On the field, Johnson said the reasons that brought him to Maryland to play for former coach Bobby Ross -- a good man and coach with a good track record, he said -- also apply to Krivak. He added that he believes Krivak "hasn't done anything obviously wrong. We just haven't had success the last three or four years.

"You can't put that just on him though. Everybody's trying to point fingers, trying to nail our problems to just one thing, but the media hasn't been able to and neither have we. But until a team here does it all -- win the ACC or a bowl game -- then Maryland won't be what Maryland is supposed to be.

"And everyone will keep pointing fingers. Is it the players? Is it the coaching staff? Is it the administration for not letting the coaches get the players they need? Right now it all just hurts."

Whatever the problems, said junior defensive back Scott Rosen, all the players can do now is play football.

"We all know that this isn't high school. This is big business and things happen in a big business but we have no say in it," Rosen said. "All we can do is play the last two games as hard as we can and whatever the coach wants we'll do.

"I think that from my freshman year to now he's become more understanding and comfortable around the players. . . . I've been around for four years and I'd rather finish with the staff that's here. One thing about this program is that everyone has had pride -- no one has wanted to give up.

"I would hate to quit on someone and I would hate to have someone do that to me. To do something like firing Coach Krivak would be like quitting, like looking for an excuse for why things haven't gone well."

Terrapins Notes: Maryland resumed practicing in earnest for Saturday's game at Penn State, following an off weekend.

"Not playing and taking those 60 to 70 hits had to help," Krivak said. "But it's important to get back and get focused. We're 5-4 and in good shape with two games to play. There are lots of opportunities left -- not only for a winning season. Two games left against nationally ranked teams gives you opportunities."

Maryland will be trying for its first win against Penn State in 29 years. The Terrapins, who tied the Nittany Lions a year ago to break a 24-game losing string, have never won in State College.

"For the last three, four, five years we've played toe-to-toe with them," Krivak said. "We have to continue that, but each game stands on its own merit. What happened last year or 24 years ago doesn't have anything to do with what will happen on Saturday. That's like saying you and I are responsible for the Civil War."

Senior quarterback and first-year starter Scott Zolak said the streak "doesn't mean anything to me -- this is my first time playing against Penn State."