As it prepares to open its Atlantic Coast Conference schedule Saturday against Wake Forest, Maryland is in an unaccustomed position.
The Terps — who lost their last seven conference games last season — find themselves as favorites to beat the Demon Deacons and avenge a 21-point loss last season.
The Terps (2-2), who were beset by early-season injuries, are as healthy as they have been all season. In Wake Forest (3-2, 1-2 ACC), they will encounter a team ranked near the bottom of the ACC in most statistical defensive categories.
The Demon Deacons will play without receiver Michael Campanaro (River Hill), who is third in the conference with an average of 7.6 catches per game. Campanaro broke his hand early in Wake Forest's 34-27 loss to Duke on Saturday.
Maryland appears to have something it lacked in 2011 during a losing streak that extended over the season's final two months — a sense of possibility.
Granted, the Terps have lost two games in a row. Maryland is trying to reverse its tendency to surrender sacks — it leads the conference with 3.75 per game — and turnovers. The Terps have shuffled their offensive line since the last game, inserting freshman tackle Mike Madaras and redshirt freshman guard Andrew Zeller as starters.
"They're only going to get better," coach Randy Edsall said of Madaras and Zeller. "They're athletic. They're guys that play until the whistle blows."
Improved offensive line play is critical to keeping freshman quarterback Perry Hills upright. Hills was sacked five times in the 31-21 loss at West Virginia on Sept. 22. Edsall said he has been working with the quarterback to deliver the ball more quickly.
The offensive line has been trying to develop cohesion on and off the field. For weeks, starting tackle Justin Gilbert, starting guard Bennett Fulper and other linemen have been growing beards as a show of unity.
"I think it's just the O-line trying to do something together," said Fulper, who arrived at Tuesday's media availability sporting what he said is the first beard he has ever grown. "It takes some getting used to. You've got to get through the itchy stage — that's the toughest part."
Maryland, which was off last week, is the only ACC team not to have played a conference game yet. After four nonconference games, the arrival of the ACC schedule provides Maryland a sense of starting fresh.
"Our goal coming into the year is winning the ACC championship and hopefully we will be able to get this first win this weekend against Wake," said senior defensive lineman A.J. Francis. "I would hate to say it doesn't matter what you do before ACC play, but it really doesn't matter because at the end of the day if you win all your ACC games, you could have went 0-4."
Said Edsall: "All the games are important, but conference games end up being a little more important because of the prize at the end of the rainbow."
Maryland's defense hopes to have an advantage against a Wake Forest offensive line with only one senior starter.
The Terps rank eighth nationally in total defense (281.2 yards per game). Maryland has been particularly strong against the run (83.5 yards per game).
"This is my fourth year playing against Wake and I've pretty much played against the same O-linemen every year because there were guys who came in the same time I came in," Francis said. "And now they've got all young guys on the O-line, so it'll be a learning experience trying to get accustomed to how these guys play."
Notes: Edsall said senior kicker Nick Ferrara (hip) has been advised to rest for a few more weeks, and his return this season is uncertain. … Freshman receiver-returner Stefon Diggs, who ranks second in the ACC in all-purpose yards, was asked by a reporter Tuesday if he planned to remain at Maryland for four seasons or leave early for the NFL. "Four years is the plan," the freshman replied. "If anything changes, I'll let you guys know."
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