COLLEGE PARK -- The trend began in the 1992 opener, and it wasn't pleasant to watch.
Maryland led Virginia early in the fourth quarter, but the Cavaliers scored the last 16 points to pull away to a 28-15 victory. It would happen five more times in Mark Duffner's first season as coach of the Terps: Enthusiasm and a solid game plan would get them into the fourth quarter, but they would be overcome by an opponent with superior talent.
Duffner's second season at Maryland begins today (12:10 p.m.) at Byrd Stadium against Virginia, and he might begin to find out if the Terps can hold on in situations they couldn't a year ago.
For all of the talk about improved speed, the most important Maryland numbers come in the class breakdown: Of 46 players listed on the Terps' two-deep chart, 22 have never played in a Division I-A game. Included are eight true freshmen, nine redshirt freshmen and three junior college transfers.
"We knew we were going to have a young team last November," Duffner said. "We can't change that."
Duffner raves about the reckless abandon youth brings to the defense, but a swarming, attacking style only got the Terps in trouble last year, when they ranked No. 100 among I-A's 107 teams in points allowed per game. The new players might fit better in schemes that failed last year, but until today, the learning process hasn't included any games.
"In the beginning of practice, things were simplified for the young guys, but they picked it up pretty quickly," said linebacker Jaime Flores, one of three seniors who'll start on defense. "We're sending some 18-, 19-year-olds out there, but the main thing is that their athletic ability is better.
"The question mark on this team is the defense, but the new
guys are flying to the ball each day in practice. We know the offense can score. It's up to the defense to be better."
Thirteen of the 22 players on the defensive depth chart didn't play for Maryland last year. They don't remember the late stumbles, but Flores and the other veterans do.
"You'd be lying if you said the West Virginia, Virginia games didn't take some of the steam out of you, but we kept coming back," Flores said. "We got crushed by Florida State [69-21], but we came back the next Monday and believed we could beat Clemson. We did. No matter how young we are, we believe we can win every game this year."
During the off-season, 1992 sack leader Jim Panagos had career-ending back surgery, which added to the concern Duffner already had about the young line. Besides Mark Sturdivant, who could move to nose guard, there are new players at tackle, nose guard and end.
"We're awfully, awfully thin at some spots, especially the defensive line and secondary," Duffner said. "We certainly can't afford to get anyone hurt."
The run-and-shoot offense is more settled, but the quarterback is sophomore Scott Milanovich, who threw 30 passes in a reserve role last season after nearly beating out senior John Kaleo for the starting job. Milanovich also will be the punter, because junior college All-American kicker Lonny Calicchio didn't meet requirements to transfer to Maryland.
Kaleo had a huge season, his statistics ballooning after superback Mark Mason went down in the fifth game with a fractured shoulder blade. Mason is healthy and expects a big senior season after two seasons that were cut short by injury. Running behind a line that is one of the team's strengths, the offense could duplicate the stats of last year, when the Terps set 27 school records.
The production increased as the season progressed. Virginia limited Maryland to a season-low 304 yards in the opener, and coach George Welsh figures that the run-and-shoot will be considerably more expansive.
"The run-and-shoot Maryland gave us last year was a pure vanilla offense," Welsh said. "They hadn't had a lot of time to install it, and as the year went on Maryland included more running plays, screens, maybe a version with a tight end."
The Virginia defense could be even better than it was a year ago, but sophomore Symion Willis wasn't named the starting quarterback until last week and the offensive line is weakened by several injuries.
It's the start of a demanding schedule for Maryland that includes five teams in the Top 25: No. 1 Florida State; No. 16 North Carolina; No. 17 Penn State; No. 22 Clemson; and No. 24 North Carolina State.