COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK -- Maryland's last three-game winning streak in football is a distant memory.
Mark Duffner was a rookie head coach at Holy Cross and the freshmen at Maryland now were in the fifth grade when the Terps began 1986 with three wins.
Maryland (4-4, 2-4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) can win its third straight tonight at Byrd Stadium against North Carolina State. The Terps are assured of their best season since 1990, but they know they have been inadequate against anything that resembles a quality team, a shortcoming that can be rectified against the Wolfpack.
N.C. State (5-2, 3-1) wasn't impressive in October, but the Wolfpack is still in the ACC race and in the running for its seventh consecutive bowl appearance.
"This game means everything to us, as it does to them," said Duffner, whose usual approach to the media is that no conference game is bigger than another. "This is the best and biggest opportunity we've had in a number of years."
Maryland closes at No. 13 Virginia and No. 10 Syracuse, so this will be the Terps' best chance to reach the five-win level. They have played only one bad half at Byrd Stadium this season, against defending national champion Florida State, and since then handled Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and Tulane there.
Last year, N.C. State toyed with the Terps in a 44-21 blowout in Raleigh. It might have been the low point of Duffner's regime, and afterward, then-sophomore quarterback Scott Milanovich wondered if his teammates had grown too accustomed to losing.
This year, the Terps aren't good enough to take anything for granted, but they feel considerably better about themselves.
The run-and-shoot offense and Milanovich are back in form after a horrid start to the season in which he was relegated to second team for three games. The defense is rated 98th among Division I-A's 107 teams, but it's a vast improvement on last year's horror show.
N.C. State climbed to No. 18 in the Associated Press rankings after a 4-0 start, but its only win since then was at home against Wake Forest. The Wolfpack lost by three touchdowns at Louisville and were never in last week's game at North Carolina. Now it has a quarterback controversy -- fans want coach Mike O'Cain to replace struggling Terry Harvey with Geoff Bender -- but N.C. State is still talking big.
"Our goal of winning the conference championship is a long shot, but it's still a possibility if we win our last four games," O'Cain said. "If we can finish 9-2 or 8-3, we'll play in a very fine bowl game. We know that we play three great football teams [N.C. State finishes with Duke, Florida State and Virginia] and a team ++ that is improving every week."
Maryland improved against Georgia Tech and Tulane, and, said Milanovich, "Everyone was talking about how we could win these three in a row at home, but it's kind of cheap talk beforehand.
"Now you hear guys talking about the possibility of going to a bowl game if everything goes right, but I think everyone knows that this is the week it has to happen."