Maryland's first drive against Navy ended on an incomplete third-down pass inside the Midshipmen 20-yard line. The Terps' first drive against Clemson also ended on an incomplete third-down pass in the red zone. Their first drive against West Virginia brought something new and different on third down -- a four-yard pass play when five yards were needed.

And against Wake Forest, order was restored; Maryland's first drive ended on an incomplete third-down pass in the red zone.

Those four drives yielded nine points thanks to the surprisingly automatic Dan Ennis, who has yet to miss a kick of any sort in his limited collegiate career. But the Terps' poor performance on third downs has bedeviled Coach Ralph Friedgen throughout this season's erratic opening month. And with his defense coming off its strongest showing of the year, boosting the offense's third-down success rate will be one of the primary goals this week.

"Oh, we're working on them. We've got to get better at them," said Friedgen, who grimaced when asked about the problem. "Where would we be if we were converting our third downs?"

The likely answer is somewhere north of 2-2, Maryland's record heading into Saturday's homecoming game against No. 19 Virginia.

The third-down offense has been by far the worst in Friedgen's five-year tenure. In his first four seasons, the Terps connected on 43 percent of their third-down chances, and never finished a season with a conversion rate under 37 percent. This year, that rate stands at 23 percent -- last in the ACC and 112th out of 117 Division I teams.

And the struggles have come in every possible scenario: in Maryland's own territory and at the opposing team's goal line, on third and short and on third and long, in the first quarter and with the game on the line, on running plays and on passing plays, on the field and in the huddle.

Quarterback Sam Hollenbach has been one of the season's most pleasant surprises; he is completing 62 percent of his throws and is 34th in the NCAA's esoteric pass efficiency ratings, with a figure of 142.9. But on third downs he has completed just 12 of 33 throws and his efficiency rating dips to 75.7, which would leave him out of the NCAA's top 100 passers.

The Terps have also made several of their most gnawing mistakes on third downs: two delay of game penalties, a broken protection that led to a sack and a fumble, two interceptions and a poorly thrown deep ball last Saturday that missed an open Danny Melendez.

Friedgen is particularly bothered by the delay of game penalties; he said the coaching staff must get plays into the huddle quicker, and Hollenbach needs to develop a greater awareness of the play clock.

"The first thing a quarterback should do when he gets out of the huddle is look at the clock, and he's not doing that," Friedgen said. "It's cost us a couple of times."

But the crux of the third-down problems rests with a running game that is still less threatening than in past seasons despite improvements last week. Friedgen said his staff has been stubborn about trying to establish the run and will probably turn to the pass more in coming weeks.

Poor running plays on first down have led to untenable third-down situations, and short-yardage situations have lived up to their name. Not including sacks, Maryland has rushed 12 times on third downs and gained 16 yards. Running backs have been trapped in the backfield and failed to elude oncoming hordes, which is why Keon Lattimore's performance Saturday -- when Friedgen said he broke nine tackles -- was especially promising.

Friedgen said yesterday that a starting back would not be named until later in the week, but Lattimore -- whose three-yard touchdown Saturday was one of Maryland's most impressive runs of the year -- seems certain to play a large role against the Cavaliers.

"It's an attitude you've got to have, you've got to be relentless" in short-yardage situations, Lattimore said. "I seen three black jerseys on the other side but I refused to lose, I didn't want to go down. If you're a [defensive back], or a linebacker for that matter, I'm going to punish you. If you try to come up and tackle me I want to punish you, I want to hurt you, that's what I want to do. And hopefully as the game goes on, you don't want to tackle me any more."

Terrapins Notes: Obi Egekeze, out since preseason with a strained quadriceps, could challenge Chris Roberts for the kickoff role this week, special teams coach Ray Rychleski said. Coaches initially said Egekeze would compete for place-kicking duties when he returned, but Ennis's performance ended that possibility. . . .

Punter Adam Podlesh was named ACC specialist of the week and defensive end-linebacker Trey Covington, who recorded his first career sack, was named the ACC's co-rookie of the week. . . . Maryland's Oct. 8 game at Temple will not be televised.