On the night of Oct. 8, Ralph Friedgen addressed his Maryland team, singling out players such as Joel Statham to give a state-of-affairs appraisal. While noting his improvement, the 20-year-old quarterback said he needed to eliminate mistakes.

"There were guys in the room that clapped for him," Friedgen said. "That tells me that these guys are pulling for him."

Friedgen recounted the memory Wednesday while he sat, eyes welling, in his favorite office chair. The memory was both poignant and distant.

Teammates still support Statham, but the season has frayed and reaches a crossroads today with a defining game against North Carolina State at Byrd Stadium. The most significant challenge for Friedgen, whose emotions this week ranged from gruff to resolute, is to ready his team for the nation's top-ranked pass defense.

He must resuscitate an offense seven days after it compiled 81 total yards -- Maryland's worst output since 1996 -- and averaged seven inches per carry in the 20-7 loss to Georgia Tech. And yet Friedgen remains steadfast. "I think we've got a good plan this week," he said.

N.C. State's defense, under new coordinator Reggie Herring, has been transformed. Last year, it ranked 116th nationally in pass defense, allowing more than 284 passing yards per game. This year, it leads the nation, surrendering only 112.2 yards in the air per game.

Wolfpack Coach Chuck Amato said the biggest improvement has been the maturity of the defensive line, which features three sophomores and a junior.

Here is one difference between Georgia Tech's defense and N.C. State's: The Yellow Jackets blitz a lot. The Wolfpack, Friedgen said, blitzes more.

Maryland coaches acknowledged that the Terps' scout team couldn't simulate the speed of Georgia Tech's interior linemen, the "quickest we've seen and maybe that we will see," Maryland offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe said. The Yellow Jackets penetrated with abandon, even at times when Maryland's offensive line was in maximum protection sets.

N.C. State's line strength exists at the ends, where it exhibits size and, most importantly, speed. Manny Lawson, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound junior, has 4.2 percent body fat and won the ACC title in indoor long jump last season. His vertical leap, according to the team's media guide, is higher than the device used to measure that statistic.

At the other end position is sophomore Mario Williams, who at 6 feet 7 and 291 pounds still runs the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds. Opponents primarily have double-teamed Williams.

Speed was the essential component Amato craved in defensive linemen. "I don't care how big we are," he said.

But in addition to speed, Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer said, the linemen are agile, which helped them maintain incessant pressure on Hokies quarterback Bryan Randall in the Wolfpack's Sept. 25 victory. "We gave up 10 sacks," Beamer said, "and we haven't done that in a long time."

On Oct. 2, Wake Forest completed 11 of 18 passes against N.C. State, but gained only 77 yards passing in the Wolfpack's 27-21 overtime victory.

"The number one thing is the pressure they put on you up front," Wake Forest Coach Jim Grobe said. "They've got the good combination of really good linemen and linebackers and then some guys in the secondary who are very skilled and can play man coverage. When you put those two together, you have the whole package."

The Wolfpack's secondary comprises one junior and three seniors, including rover Andre Maddox, the team's top tackler last season. N.C. State (3-2, 2-1) almost exclusively uses press man-to-man coverage, which disrupts an offense's timing. Said Taaffe, "They line up across from your guy and say, 'Beat me.' "

To beat N.C. State's line, Taaffe said, Maryland (3-2, 1-1) either needs to stretch the field vertically or separate across the field. Using more option plays, with which Maryland has occasionally struggled, is one possibility.

"The good news is if you beat it, you're going to make a big play," Friedgen said. "It's easier if you have more speed than they do. I don't know if that's the case."

Maryland's longest reception last week was 15 yards. Friedgen, who made this week's practice a "more competitive" situation for quarterbacks, decided nonetheless to start Statham, who has seven interceptions and seven touchdown passes. Expect backup Jordan Steffy also to play, depending upon game circumstances, after Thursday's practice was the best the freshman had in quite some time, according to coaches.

Maryland coaches told each quarterback to set individual goals during each practice period and hold himself accountable. The aim is to build two quarterbacks without destroying the confidence in either, an assignment coaches acknowledge is difficult in any game, much less against one of the nation's top defenses.

Taaffe said he is not a proponent of a two-quarterback system, but added, "Jordan deserves to play and hopefully at some point it [the quarterback situation] will resolve itself and unfold."

Wolfpack 6-foot-7, 291-pound defensive end Mario Williams, closing in on Richmond quarterback Stacy Tutt, has been largely double-teamed by opponents this season.