COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK -- They were laughed at two years ago.
Now they can't stop smiling.
West Virginia was without its top offensive threat, and a steady rain made running hard and passing harder, but nothing could detract from the performance of Maryland's defense last night, as that unit set up a 31-17 victory at Byrd Stadium.
A soggy gathering of 48,055, the largest at Maryland in 10 years, saw the Terps improve to 3-0 for the first time since 1986. They haven't begun a season with four straight wins since the 1978 team started 8-0, and coach Mark Duffner's team surely will be favored when Duke comes to Byrd next Saturday.
The Terps have won in the air-conditioned comfort of the Superdome, on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, and now in the rain, and all the victories have been by at least two touchdowns. It's the kind of dominance that could crack the Top 25 this afternoon.
"The field conditions weren't pretty, but the fight in this team is something else," said Duffner, who began the season on shaky ground but had a full house behind him last night. "With the weather, it was magnificent for our team to see all those people. What I liked is that they didn't leave early either."
Actually, they probably wanted to stick around to make sure they weren't hallucinating.
Maryland won at West Virginia last year, but the Big East Conference's Mountaineers (1-2) were slight favorites last night, thanks to an offense that averaged 503 yards in their first two games. Duffner said it wasn't pretty, but the raw numbers posted by the Terps' defense, which two years ago set an NCAA record for yards allowed in a season, looked beautiful:
* With tailback Robert Walker out with a sprained ankle, the Mountaineers mustered 211 yards total offense, the fewest the Terps have allowed in five years.
* West Virginia committed seven turnovers, six of them were caused by Maryland's defense.
* The Terps kept West Virginia out of the end zone for 40 minutes, as the Mountaineers' first touchdown was provided by their defense.
Maryland even made plays laying down, as the first of cornerback Chad Scott's two interceptions came on his back.
"Each game, you feel a little stronger," said Scott, who played at Towson State last year. "This is a very together group, and we feel more confident every time out."
That bravado was evident with three minutes to go in the third quarter, and Maryland clinging to a 24-17 lead.
The Terps' offense, which was hampered by its first four turnovers of the season, had just exited after three plays. On its previous possession, West Virginia's offense had moved 65 yards for its only touchdown of the night, and now it was another drive away from tying the game or going ahead.
If you think the Maryland defense was rattled, forget it.
On first down, sophomore defensive end Eric Ogbogu separated the ball from Mountaineers quarterback Chad Johnston, and linebacker Ratcliff Thomas had his second fumble recovery of the game at the Mountaineers' 17-yard line.
"West Virginia hung around the whole game," said defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, whose unit has forced 14 turnovers. "We were never able to separate ourselves from them until late in the game, but we kept finding ways to make the plays."
In quick order after the Ogbogu-forced fumble, sophomore quarterback Brian Cummings completed an 11-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Lewis, and the lead was back to two touchdowns, where it stayed through a sloppy fourth quarter.
That pass was a milestone play for Lewis, as he set Maryland records with his 135th career catch and 19th touchdown reception. Sophomore superback Buddy Rodgers rushed for 112 yards, but it was the defense's night to crow.
The Terps also got another boost from their special teams.
Joe O'Donnell booted the longest field goal of his career, a 47-yarder, and the Mountaineers fumbled away one of his kickoffs. The punt return team harassed Brian West into a long night, and punter Russell Edwards averaged 42.3 yards, as the Terps continued to thrive while quarterback/punter Scott Milanovich serves a four-game gambling suspension.
Rodgers' 54-yard touchdown put the Terps on top 7-3 with 4:45 to go in the first quarter, and they never trailed again. That play featured a huge downfield block from 321-pound tackle Darryl Gilliam, and sent a message that the Mountaineers were about to get out-muscled.
West Virginia's Wilkie Perez fumbled O'Donnell's kickoff, and four players later, Cummings faked into the line and beat two defenders to the right corner for the Terps' second touchdown in 76 seconds, an 11-yard run that made it 14-3 with 1:13 left in the first quarter.
Maryland could have blown the game open in the second quarter, but the offense followed West Virginia's cue and began playing giveaway.
A 35-yard touchdown run by Lewis was called back by an illegal block. Cummings threw his first interception of the season, but it wasn't as painful as his second, which saw Mountaineers cornerback Aaron Beasley step in front of a sideline route and return it 49 yards for a touchdown with 7:01 to go in the half.
There was another fumble by Cummings on first and goal from the West Virginia 8-yard line, with 1:20 left in the half, but the offense atoned with 10 points on its first two possessions of the third quarter. Mancel Johnson turned an outside screen into a 24-yard touchdown pass, and then O'Donnell hit his 47-yard field goal.
The power from the light towers gave out at the end, as the Terps made their way in the dark through several thousand happy students to their locker room.
The lights had already been turned out on West Virginia.
Half the teams in college football's top 10 score more than 60 points, including 77 each by No. 1 Florida State and No. 2 Nebraska.
Rutgers 27 Navy 17
Dayton 38 Towson State 0
Liberty 48 Morgan State 19
Bowie State 35 Knoxville 26
Frostburg 21 Mercyhurst 7
J. Hopkins 25 Swarthmore 3
W. Maryland 21 Gettysburg 17
Salisbury St. 34 Methodist 19
Fla. State 77 N.C. State 17
Nebraska 77 Ariz. State 28
Florida 62 Tennessee 37
Penn State 66 Temple 14
Colorado 66 NE La. 14
Ohio State 30 Washington 20