One day after practice this week, an observer told Nick Novak the news: Expect rain tomorrow, lots of it. Novak, Maryland's standout kicker, flipped the cleat he was holding in the air.
"Oh, great," he said, sarcastically.
The forecast for the Maryland-West Virginia game: Heavy rain with 15-mph wind gusts, ominous conditions for kicking a football or holding a snap. And in a game that figures to be close, one aspect of a single play -- a mishandled snap, poor foot contact on a punt, a clutch field goal into the wind -- could determine which team emerges with its undefeated record still intact.
Novak exaggerated his worry. For all of the praise Coach Ralph Friedgen's intricate offense receives, for all of the accomplishments of Gary Blackney's defense the past three years, special teams remains a team strength. The Terps feature one of the Atlantic Coast Conference's standout special teams units, including an established punt returner, vaunted place kicker and consistent punter.
Maryland's special teams players do not think their play could win a game; they know it. That's the mantra the unit repeats in each meeting.
"Pretty much every game we come in saying special teams can make a big difference," punter Adam Podlesh said. "You've already seen special teams play affect games a lot this season."
Two weeks ago, much of the country witnessed the agony of Oregon State kicker Alexis Serna, who threw his helmet after missing a third extra point attempt in a 22-21 overtime loss to defending co-national champion Louisiana State.
Last week, Clemson squandered a 24-14 lead to Georgia Tech in the final two minutes. A bad snap on a punt attempt by Clemson resulted in Georgia Tech taking possession on the Clemson 11-yard line, setting up the winning touchdown.
And Ohio State edged Marshall, 24-21, because Mike Nugent made a 55-yard field goal as time expired. Nugent and Mississippi kicker Jonathan Nichols, who won the 2003 Lou Groza Award, are among the kickers Novak most admires.
A self-described confident but not cocky player, Novak feels he is one of the best kickers in the country. He has made three game-winning kicks in his college career and prides himself on focus and preparation.
If conditions are poor tomorrow, Novak won't block them out. He has practiced for adversity, often kicking into the wind during practice. Tomorrow, he will gauge the wind during warmups. He will make sure he maintains firm ball contact. And, perhaps above all else, he will trust his ability.
"Guys who can do it well," he said, "are mentally tough and usually can do it any day."
Podlesh, meantime, has done well in his one-plus seasons at Maryland, averaging 42.3 yards per punt (third-best in the ACC) a year ago and maintaining that average this season. He said he will try not to let the conditions affect his focus and pledged to keep his hands dry.
The most dangerous special teams player could be Steve Suter, whose six punt returns for touchdowns are a Maryland record. West Virginia Coach Rich Rodriguez this week expressed particular concern about Suter, who had a 76-yard punt return for a touchdown in Maryland's 41-7 victory over West Virginia in the Gator Bowl.
Suter does not have to break a long run to have a successful punt return. In fact, early in last week's game against Temple, Suter made a diving catch on a return near midfield, which Friedgen later called a key play. Had Suter let it drop, the ball could have bounced 20 yards. Maryland instead turned the positive field position into a touchdown-scoring drive.
Field conditions will be different tomorrow. Fortunately, Friedgen noted, Mountaineer Field has a turf similar to Maryland's practice field, which quickly absorbs water.
"If it drains as well as our turf does, I think we'll be fine," Friedgen said. "It dissipates within five minutes. And the footing is usually pretty good."
But senior left guard C.J. Brooks maintained, "There isn't much you can really do to prepare for it."
Duke, which will play at Virginia Tech tomorrow, has been preparing for bad weather by using a wet ball at times in practice.
"The special team phase is ultra-important without" weather, Duke Coach Ted Roof said. "But, yeah, because the ball is flying through the air and it's wet, there is a need to increase your ball security and your focus on fundamentals, catching the ball when you punt it or catching the ball when you're going to hold it for a field goal."
With 36 players with four years of eligibility, Maryland has dozens of players looking to find a way onto the field, and special teams is one option.
"An asset like having a lot of young players really helps us out," Brooks said. "We can go to guys who maybe don't play a lot on first-team offense or defense, who can still do a great job on kickoff return and punt block."
Junior cornerback Gerrick McPhearson said he relishes playing on the kickoff return team, calling it "one of the most exciting aspects of the game."
Energy is one thing, execution is another. And Friedgen sees several areas that could improve, including kickoff coverage and kickoff return. Maryland is averaging 19.8 yards per kickoff return; the Terps averaged 22.9 yards per return last season.
On punt coverage, Friedgen said, Podlesh must kick the ball high and tacklers need to wrap up West Virginia's speedy returner Adam Jones.
In other words, every snap is crucial because, as Novak said, "Every game from here on out will be a close game."