COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK -- Maryland no longer has a one-dimensional, pass-happy offense. The defense is still among the worst in the nation, but it's better than the unit that a year ago set an NCAA record for porousness. The addition of a reliable kicker, walk-on Joe O'Donnell, is an overlooked factor in Maryland doubling last season's victory total.
From another angle, however, the Terps haven't improved since Mark Duffner replaced Joe Krivak as head coach at the end of the 1991 season. Maryland might be 4-6 overall, but Saturday's 46-21 collapse at Virginia meant it finished 2-6 in the Atlantic Coast Conference for the third time in as many seasons under Duffner.
"I know it isn't visible in our ACC record, but I don't think there's any question that progress is being made," Duffner said. "You can definitely see us getting closer."
Heading into Saturday's season finale against Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, Duffner's three-year record at Maryland is 9-23, but he doesn't look or sound like a coach who is in trouble.
All signs indicate that he will get at least the fourth year of a five-year contract to prove that the Terps are on the right path.
Athletic director Debbie Yow, who has said she won't evaluate Duffner's performance until the end of the season, has made several pointed comments regarding the impact contract buyouts have had on the athletic department budget deficit of $7 million. She doesn't sound interested in paying another coach not to work.
There wouldn't be speculation over Duffner if the Terps had taken advantage of several chances to get to .500 in the ACC, but the offense was hindered by indecision in a shutout loss at Clemson; the defense had a total collapse in a last-minute setback to North Carolina State; and the offense committed four second-half turnovers against Virginia.
Maryland, which was favored to lose all of those games, will finish seventh in the ACC. That's exactly where a panel of ACC media predicted it would finish, but the status quo isn't what the Terps had in mind, especially in a topsy-turvy year in which Duke, predicted to finish last, will go to a bowl game.
Scott Milanovich, the junior quarterback who holds the Maryland records for career completions (487) and touchdown passes (46), agrees with Duffner that the Terps are a more confident team.
But he said they need to beat a quality opponent, something the program hasn't achieved since beating No. 25 West Virginia and No. 8 Virginia in 1990, the last time it had a winning record.
"Until we beat teams we're not supposed to, we won't be over the hump," Milanovich said. "Maybe we can do that this Saturday."
Maryland can win its season finale for the third straight year under Duffner and complete a sweep of its nonconference games.
Syracuse (6-3) was ranked No. 10 in the nation two weeks ago, but since then it has lost, 27-6, to Miami and, 31-0, to Boston College.
The Orangemen haven't been in the end zone since they beat Temple Oct. 22, and instead of looking at second place in the Big East Conference and a Tier One bowl, they need to stop their slide to stay in the postseason picture.
"Every team goes through a crisis at some point in a season," Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni said. "We're in kind of a crisis situation right now."
The Coyle factor
Pasqualoni is playing up the importance of Kevin Coyle in Maryland's preparation. Coyle, the Terps' defensive coordinator and secondary coach, held similar positions at Syracuse from 1991-93.
"Kevin was in our program for three years, and there's no one we play who will know us better," Pasqualoni said. "I think that gives them [Maryland] a big, big advantage."
Coyle would have joined the pack when the Holy Cross staff followed Duffner from Worcester, Mass., to College Park three years ago, but he had left a year earlier for Syracuse.
Anthony Walker, a redshirt sophomore from North County, is a reserve defensive back for Syracuse. . . . The game has been moved from a 1 p.m. start to noon. . . . Maryland's first victory came on the artificial turf of a Big East team, West Virginia. . . . Despite having three passes intercepted at Virginia, Milanovich is atop the ACC in passing efficiency for the first time.