It was a tailgate in reverse: Donnie Woods headed to the parking lot after Maryland's game last Saturday, not before it. And rather than anticipating a pending game, Woods spent several hours in that parking lot talking about the past.
Maryland's starting left guard was at the Schmitt family cookout -- as in former Maryland center Kyle Schmitt, whose younger brother, Andrew, is now the team's long snapper. And with Woods's Terrapins stuck at 1-2 after losing at home to West Virginia, his ex-teammate launched into a series of stories about the 2003 team that rallied from an 0-2 start to finish 10-3.
"We just kept talking about it," Woods said. "I think he was the only person at that tailgate that could understand me at the time."
The comparisons to that Gator Bowl-winning team began moments after the loss to West Virginia and continued during the week of preparation for today's game at Wake Forest. Coach Ralph Friedgen talked to his players about the 2003 team and its predecessor, which started 1-2 and wound up 11-3. Players pointed out that last year's team won three of its first four games but never came close to the achievements of its forerunners. The defense even watched film of its 2003 win at Wake Forest.
"It kind of gets you excited, to kind of remember what it's like to be on third down and dime and be blitzing, to actually be having fun going out there," junior cornerback Josh Wilson said. "It brings you back to defense as being fun rather than a job."
Veterans of those 2002 and 2003 teams said there was disappointment but not panic after the early losses, that they realized they weren't far from being competitive and made a commitment to improve.
"We knew we were better than what we were playing," senior linebacker William Kershaw said. "We were just making simple mistakes, like the little mistakes that we're making now."
And while the early season has revealed potentially significant problems, especially on the offensive and defensive lines, players and coaches have pointed to a few miscues that, if reversed, could have the Terps at 3-0. What if Maryland hadn't had a false-start penalty and then a sack while attempting to preserve a 10-point fourth-quarter lead against Clemson? What if protection hadn't broken down when Maryland was driving against West Virginia, turning a potential touchdown pass into a sack that took the Terps out of field goal range?
Eliminate such mistakes, Friedgen said, and this team could thrive.
"It's just when is it going to happen," he said. "I don't even know if it'll happen this year, but I believe the players we have are good players."
Still, the 2002 and 2003 teams had at least one major advantage over this year's version: a helping of early-season opponents that provided the resistance of an under-cooked flan.
The 2002 team followed its 1-2 start with games against Eastern Michigan and Division I-AA Wofford. Combined score? Maryland, 82-11. The 2003 team recovered from its 0-2 start with early season games against Division I-AA The Citadel and Eastern Michigan. Combined score? Maryland, 98-13.
Nothing on this year's schedule compares, but if there's any forgiveness it will come over the next three weeks. The Terps have beaten today's opponent six straight years, and the Demon Deacons haven't had a winning ACC record since 1988. After next week's homecoming game against Virginia, Maryland will travel to woeful Temple, home of the nation's 110th-ranked defense and 112th-ranked offense. So a victory today, players said, could prompt yet another turnaround.
"We've got to win this game," Woods said. "If we get this win, I feel like it's going to get us a little momentum. If we don't win this game . . . I don't know what to say after that."
Terrapins Notes: Friedgen said sophomore Lance Ball had the best week of practice among the team's three running backs, while sophomore Keon Lattimore showed improvement and should play more today. The starter will depend on the initial personnel package, and all three backs -- including leading rusher Mario Merrills -- will continue to get carries. . . .
Starting defensive tackle Jack Griffin is still playing through a sprained ankle and will split time with Carlos Feliciano, among others. . . .
Freshman wide receiver Isaiah Williams, who has yet to catch a pass, had his best week of practice and is expected to see more playing time today.