Maryland's defense spent the fourth quarter of Saturday's 22-12 win over Wake Forest discovering a finishing touch that had been absent in its three previous outings. At the same time, the Maryland offense was making a discovery that could prove just as important.

With leading rushers Mario Merrills and Lance Ball mostly watching from the sidelines, the Terps handed the football again and again to sophomore Keon Lattimore, who responded with by far the best afternoon of his collegiate career. After carrying the ball nine times in the season's first three games, Lattimore ran 15 times for a career-high 76 yards Saturday. That included 11 carries for 48 yards in the fourth quarter, when Lattimore helped Maryland exhaust the clock and provided a dash of hope for a moribund ground game.

After the game and again yesterday, Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen praised Lattimore's performance. He also said the second-year back would be given an opportunity to earn the starting spot for Saturday's home game against Virginia.

"He gave us a real spark, made some nice cuts, broke about eight tackles, a real positive for us," Friedgen said. "I'm hoping he comes on and continues to improve. It would really, really help us, because he can do it all."

After a strong spring practice, Lattimore was expected to play a major role in Maryland's offense, but he continued to struggle with consistency this summer as Merrills clinched the starting job. Through three games, Lattimore -- a good blocker and pass catcher -- had played mostly in throwing situations and two-back sets. At halftime on Saturday, he hadn't touched the ball, and Maryland had run for just 44 yards.

With Merrills laboring to find open space for the third straight game -- he had one yard on six carries, all before halftime -- Lattimore got his first extended opportunity as a featured back. He broke a tackle and plowed into the end zone on a three-yard touchdown run, and he got outside on a 23-yard run that would have been much longer had he not stepped out of bounds. Still, it was Maryland's longest running play of the year, and with an inexperienced and erratic offensive line, such elusiveness could prove useful.

"He made some guys miss, which is what we need bad," Friedgen said. "Because there's a lot of guys to make miss."

Lattimore said his increased effectiveness Saturday was largely because of play calling; in the two-back sets, he often would make one scripted cut, and as the primary back in the fourth quarter he was offered more freedom.

"It was kind of like freestyling," he said. "That's more my game."

Said guard Donnie Woods, "You throw Keon in there, you don't know where he's going to go."

And yet Maryland's ground game left much to be desired, even after Lattimore's entry. Seven rushing plays went backward, often setting up second- or third-and-long situations. And five trips into the red zone resulted in just that one touchdown, a situation made slightly more palatable by three field goals from Dan Ennis, who has yet to miss a kick in his career.

"We definitely made improvements from last week," Woods said, "but there's still a long way to go."