Richard Pill works near the fault line. An attorney in Martinsburg, W. Va., Pill estimates 90 percent of locals around his office support the West Virginia football team. But one has to travel only 22 miles northeast, across the Maryland border and into Hagerstown, to find a community composed almost entirely of Maryland fans.

Residents of both panhandle nooks intersect at banks and in supermarkets, often sparking festive gridiron debate that has crescendoed this week. Pill, who has not missed a Mountaineers home game in 42 years, said the significance of Saturday's game is undisputed.

"This," he said, "is the most important game of the year here."

Throughout West Virginia, the anticipation this week is comparable to what it was before Notre Dame's visit to Morgantown in 2000 and Ohio State's in 1998. Maryland is coming to town for a nationally televised game that Mountaineers fans have pinpointed since the final anticlimactic moments of Maryland's 41-7 victory in the Gator Bowl.

The Terps' dominance of West Virginia, winning four games in three years all by more than 10 points, has captured the coal mining region's attention throughout the offseason. During the summer, Mountaineers players and coaches incessantly heard three syllables: Ma-ry-land.

And yet, as the noon kickoff nears, the message emerging from the West Virginia program and those close to it is tempered with caution and is exceedingly respectful toward its border rival. Rather than cockiness, West Virginia has conceded that the Terps simply were better the past three years, and might well be again in 2004.

"I know I sound like a coach," said Gary McPherson, West Virginia's senior director of athletic development. "But this happens to be just the next game on the schedule."

West Virginia Coach Rich Rodriguez has echoed similar sentiments throughout the week, a conscious psychological maneuver to deflect pressure from his 2-0 team. Rodriguez said one of the reasons, among several, that previous games against Maryland turned into routs was that the Mountaineers pressed too much mentally.

He said he's not sure if the Mountaineers are worthy yet of their No. 7 national ranking. "I don't think you should have polls until October," he said.

Although he acknowledged that it's a big game -- "That's all anybody asked us about this summer" -- it's only one step in a season-long journey.

"I don't want to put too much pressure on any one game," he said. "It is just one game . . . we're in an 11-round playoff system, and you've got to take each round [one] at a time. We've taken care of the first two, and now we're in the third round."

The cliches makes sense: It would be difficult for West Virginia to publicly call it a make-or-break game before it enters its Big East schedule, which will play more of a role in determining its postseason fate. Players, by all accounts, have listened, not looking past the first two opponents, East Carolina and Central Florida, and playing down, to some degree, the importance of Saturday.

"You always look for another shot," West Virginia quarterback Rasheed Marshall said. "But it's not one of those games that I put a big 'X' on my calendar for."

What's more, and perhaps most surprising, Rodriguez volunteered in multiple interviews this week that he feels his team should be considered the significant underdog, despite its lofty ranking, dominating offensive performance so far and sizeable home-field advantage. "Until we beat them," he said, "then they should be the favorite."

He even acknowledged that if West Virginia does not win, he at least hopes to make the game close for once. Later asked if the community would be satisfied with a close loss to a border rival it hasn't beaten since 2000, Rodriguez said, "No."

Their roster is formidable. West Virginia has an offensive line considered among the nation's 10 best, a senior quarterback and a star-in-the-making running back, Kay-Jay Harris, who ran for a Big East-record 337 yards in the season opener before pulling his hamstring last week.

The Mountaineers fan base knows the season's dynamics. In the truncated Big East, which lost stalwarts Miami and Virginia Tech to the ACC this year, West Virginia has been penciled in as the team that will earn the Bowl Championship Series berth as the league champion.

Those close to the program know that 21st-ranked Maryland (2-0) could represent the tallest hurdle -- the Mountaineers also play at Virginia Tech Oct. 2 -- between West Virginia and an undefeated regular season.

"A lot of people are talking about these people having a chance to win the national championship," Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen said. "I mean, they are the experts."

Harris has told a Pittsburgh reporter that a victory over Maryland could lead to a berth in the Orange Bowl, the national title game.

"That's not unrealistic for Mountaineer fans," said Pill, the longtime supporter. "We've done it before. We're used to going to national championships."

West Virginia, under Coach Don Nehlen, won its first 11 games in 1988 and 1993 before losing to Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl and Florida in the Sugar Bowl, respectively. Both times it finished in the top seven nationally.

Since the end of the Gator Bowl in January, when the West Virginia team converged in the locker room long after most of its fans had departed Alltel Stadium, the focus has been the promise of this season.

Rather than be downtrodden about ending their season with a non-competitive bowl performance, seniors encouraged the younger players to prepare for spring practice and what could be a golden 2004 season. Friedgen summed up this Saturday's meeting: West Virginia returned most of its team; Maryland did not.

All rivalries ebb and flow, but what has been surprising to all is that Maryland has won by an average of nearly 41-10 in the past three meetings.

"We've been hearing it," Marshall said. "We try to block it out."

No one yet has pinpointed why the games haven't been close.

"It's not like we were losing to a cupcake team," said Quincy Wilson, a former Mountaineers running back who lost to the Terps four straight times. " . . . It's the same dream you're always having. But we just couldn't wake up."

The added story line to this year's meeting, Maryland players said, is that West Virginia is so highly ranked. Saturday could prove whether that's deserved.

As much as the Mountaineers have successfully muffled distractions this week, win or lose, they won't be able to silence the residents in the surrounding areas long after Saturday's game.

Consider Martinsburg and Hagerstown, two communities separated by 22 miles and school allegiances. One will celebrate. The other will rationalize.

"For a Maryland game," Pill said, "this is tops."

Terps and Derrick Fenner pounded WVU in 2004 Gator Bowl, but the Mountaineers hope for a better result Saturday.