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For a change, defense taking bows, not boos Terps take their place among national leaders


COLLEGE PARK -- The Maryland defense was much maligned during the first three seasons of Mark Duffner's coaching tenure, but now it is leading the team's resurgence.

After three straight victories and a No. 24 ranking in the latest Associated Press poll, the Terps lead the nation in turnover margin, stand eighth against the pass and are 14th against scoring.

In the Atlantic Coast Conference, they are first in four defensive categories, and the 211 yards allowed to West Virginia on Saturday was the lowest total permitted by Maryland in almost 10 years.

"Last year, we were getting blown off the ball and missing a lot of tackles," said linebacker Ratcliff Thomas, the team's leading tackler for two seasons. "Now,we're playing with more experience and confidence. It felt really great to see one headline that said 'Terps defense sharp.' "

Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said the players made strong off-season progress and built on good efforts against Virginia and Syracuse in 1994's final two games after a horrendous outing against North Carolina State.

"The experience factor is starting to show," said Coyle. "Overall, this is just a more confident group that is not waiting for something bad to happen, but is waiting for something good."

The turning point came after N.C. State scored on every possession except the one before the halftime gun in a 47-45 victory at Byrd Stadium last Nov. 5.

"We took N.C. State really hard," said Thomas. "It was a wake-up for us. After that, we started to play better."

No fair-weather fans

At his weekly news conference, Duffner made it a point to applaud the 48,055 fans who attended last week's win in a steady rain.

"We're awfully thankful for that," said the coach. "Our students and the other fans stayed until the end."

"I know I was excited that the crowd stayed," said defensive tackle Johnnie Hicks. "At the first sign of rain during my freshman year, the people would get up and leave in the middle of the game."

Hicks said the fans have now embraced the team and "people know who you are. On campus now, you can tell it's football season, just like you can when basketball's here."

Maryland is expecting another 40,000-plus audience Saturday night when Duke visits.

Remembering last year

Duke routed Maryland, 49-16, at Durham, N.C., in last year's opener, so the Terps have considerable incentive for this week.

"I don't like to say we have payback coming," said Thomas. "But it is a big game. That loss set the tempo for our whole season."

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