Maryland had five months to prepare for its first opponent; the Terps had seven days to prepare for their second. Their first opponent featured a quarterback making his first career start; their second opponent has one of the most experienced quarterbacks in Division I. Their first opponent had an offensive line that averaged 269 pounds; their second opponent has a line heftier by an average of more than 40 pounds per man.
That first opponent, Navy, lost nearly every significant player from the previous season. And that second opponent, Clemson, arrives in College Park today ranked 25th in the Associated Press poll.
So why, one might reasonably wonder, are the Terps relieved to see Clemson approaching and Navy receding into the past?
Maryland players on both sides of the ball said this week they were looking forward to playing a more traditional opponent, a team that relies more on strength and athleticism and less on the trickery Navy displayed last Saturday.
"I'm sure they are," Coach Ralph Friedgen said with a laugh. "That wasn't easy, playing that stuff."
Starting center Ryan McDonald even said he finds it easier to block the bigger players he'll meet this afternoon instead of the smaller linemen and linebackers he faced in Maryland's 23-20 win over the Midshipmen.
"It's kind of weird," he admitted. "Clemson plays more of a defense like our defense plays, so we're used to blocking that style."
But Maryland's biggest adjustments will come on the other side of the ball. Despite months of preparation, the Terps were kept on their heels by Navy's triple-option offense, especially in the first half. Friedgen said his players, used to defensive coordinator Gary Blackney's zone blitzing scheme, couldn't be as aggressive as they would have liked against Navy, and the players agreed.
"When you play Navy, you might have had two or three assignments on one play; with a conventional offense like Clemson, you've just got pretty much one key, one way that you've got to go," linebacker Jermaine Lemons said. "I feel that we match up better because the [schemes] we have are going to make it a lot easier for everybody to play their assignments, to get them on the ground and make plays."
And in fact, Maryland's aggressive defensive approach has thrived against Clemson under the current coaching regime. Since Friedgen and Blackney arrived in College Park, the Terps have allowed 49 points in four games against Clemson, an average of 12.3 per game. During Maryland's unsuccessful trip to Death Valley last year, the Tigers gained just 206 yards, their second-worst offensive performance of the year.
But Clemson Coach Tommy Bowden overhauled his attack in the offseason, bringing in Toledo offensive coordinator Rob Spence, whose Rockets averaged 459 yards and 33 points a game last year. Spence, who spent five seasons as an assistant at Maryland in the mid-'90s, installed a system heavy on high-percentage screen passes, with a renewed focus on the running game.
The approach had modest success in last week's 25-24 win over Texas A&M; four running backs helped Clemson gain 183 yards on the ground, and James Davis became the first Clemson true freshman to reach 100 yards in his debut since 1945. Meantime, drop-back quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, whose Heisman Trophy aspirations soured during a mediocre 2004 season, was 14 for 19.
So for Maryland, some of the focus this week will shift from its strength at linebacker to its inexperience on the defensive line and in the secondary. Seven defensive linemen played last week and eight are expected to see action today; the Terps will also start finding out who might replace the pass rushing proficiency lost when Shawne Merriman departed for the NFL.
"Whatever we've got to do," nose tackle Conrad Bolston said, "we've got to get to the quarterback."
If they don't, Maryland's secondary could well decide the game. Before the final frantic minute last Saturday, Navy attempted just five passes, so a secondary that entered the season untested remains so. Furthermore, free safety Christian Varner could be limited by a right elbow injury, and cornerback Isaiah Gardner, who plays in nickel and dime packages, was kept out of several practices this week because of a lower leg injury.
While several players said they think Maryland's defensive approach matches up better against Clemson than it did against Navy, they also said they'll have to improve on last week's performance to remain undefeated.
"We can't stay the same and expect to win every week," Lemons said. "We've got to react better, we've got to watch more film, we've got to study more. We've got to do everything better than we did last week in order to get a win."