COLLEGE PARK -- Two fumbles, two interceptions and a dozen penalties prohibited Maryland from putting away Duke earlier, but a mistake that wasn't in the statistics put the exclamation point on the Terps' first victory of 1993.
After six losses in which it was often outmanned, Maryland faced another struggling Atlantic Coast Conference team yesterday and outplayed Duke for a 26-18 victory at Byrd Stadium.
The nation's lowest-rated defense limited the Blue Devils to four field goals through the first 51 minutes, and Scott Milanovich threw for 414 yards. But the biggest play of the game -- and Maryland's season -- started with what could have been a costly blunder by the sophomore quarterback.
Maryland (1-6) was clinging to a 20-18 lead after Duke (1-6) drove 86 yards for its only touchdown with 8:51 left. The Terps were were thankful it wasn't tied, because the snap on the Blue Devils' possible conversion went over quarterback Spence Fisher's head.
The Terps, who hadn't scored in 25 minutes, moved to the Blue Devils' 35, but they bogged down and were faced with a fourth-and-10 at the Duke 42-yard line. The Maryland staff called for a punt, but Milanovich misread the signal from assistant coach Clyde Christensen as "pass or punt," in which he decides what's best after checking the Duke defense.
"I wanted to go for it," said Milanovich, who thought he got that signal. "I thought he [Christensen] gave me a different sign than the one he gave me. It was a misunderstanding."
The miscommunication paid off. With the Duke secondary backing up for what it thought would be punt coverage, wide receiver Russ Weaver was open for a 19-yard reception and a first down.
"When the quarterback is also your punter, you use that to your advantage," Christensen said. "In that situation, we wanted to be conservative and punt, but there was some confusion. He [Milanovich] misinterpreted a punt signal for a punt-or-pass signal."
When he saw Milanovich stay in shotgun formation instead of taking two steps back for the pooch punt, what did Christensen think?
"Complete it [the pass]. We're there on the sideline saying, 'No, no, no . . . yes!' Incredible."
Four Mark Mason carries later, Maryland had another touchdown and the 26-18 lead with 2:15 left. When Ken Lytle's point-after was blocked, the Blue Devils remained only a touchdown and two-point conversion away from a tie, but the Terps' defense, playing with the poise and positioning rarely seen this season, twice sacked Fisher.
All that was left at homecoming was for the security forces to turn away some mischief-minded fans who were coveting the goal posts.
Maryland is a young team that badly needed a victory. The 0-6 start was the worst since 1967, when the Terps went 0-9. Before yesterday, only seven of their players had started in a Maryland win. It was the Terps' first victory with Milanovich at quarterback, and the first that Mason, who had sustained season-ending injuries the past two years, could enjoy since the 1991 opener.
"This sure feels better than the last few weeks," second-year coach Mark Duffner said. "I'm so proud of the fight we displayed. I'm so happy for these kids right now."
Maryland dominated more than the score indicated. The offense piled up 525 yards and the defense gave up a season-low 366, 54 on a harmless hail Mary pass that ended the first half.
The Terps had first-half touchdown drives of 82, 77 and 83 yards. When it needed to use time after Duke had drawn within two, the offense answered with its longest drive of the season, a 6:36-long show of force and finesse that used eight rushes by Mason.
The Maryland defense, mean while, jumped all over a Duke offense that sputtered under both quarterbacks, starter Joe Pickens and Fisher. The Blue Devils, who were losing for the 17th straight time in the ACC since a 1991 victory here, completed only 14 of 39 passes against a Terps pass rush that recorded three sacks and twice as many hurries.
Duke moved for field goals of 43, 25, 38 and 39 yards from Tom Cochran, but Maryland, which had last led in the first quarter of the West Virginia game a month ago, never trailed.
On the game's fourth play, a huge block from right tackle John Teter freed wide receiver Jason Kremus on a sideline screen that turned into a 67-yard touchdown catch and run.
Lytle's first extra point was blocked, and it remained 6-6 until Jermaine Lewis stretched to haul in a 47-yard bomb from Milanovich with 6:57 left in the half.
A 27-yarder to Lewis was at the heart of the Terps' third touchdown drive, which ended with a Milanovich 1-yard dive that made it 20-9 with 1:49 left in the half.
The offense had other opportunities. Milanovich was intercepted inside the Blue Devils' 10 at the end of the half. In the third quarter, wide receiver Andrew Carter and superback Kameron Williams lost fumbles at the Blue Devils' 41 and 11, respectively.
With a defense that came in allowing more than 606 yards per game, holding on to the ball had been imperative for the Terps, but a group that started four freshmen rarely let down. Opponents had come to rely on the big play, but it never came yesterday.
The Blue Devils ground out 86 yards on their only touchdown drive but couldn't hit the two-point conversion that would have tied it as Jeroen Egge sent a shotgun snap over Fisher's head.
The Terps get a week off to savor their solid effort and good fortune before playing at Clemson Oct. 30, but some of of them don't want the break.
"We're kind of mad we've got Monday off," said tackle Sharrod Mack, one of the defensive heroes. "We're ready to keep working."