Bright lights shine on Terps Milanovich return is made-for-TV special


ATLANTA -- Maryland will provide ESPN with a can't-miss story line tonight at 8, when the Terps meet Georgia Tech in an Atlantic Coast Conference football game at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

The Terps' first national television appearance in six years coincides with quarterback Scott Milanovich's return after a four-game gambling suspension.

"I can't sit here and tell you what's going to happen," Milanovich said Tuesday. "I'm sure I'm going to be a little nervous, but I'm sure everyone is, since no one on this team has ever played on national television. Hopefully, it will be something of a coming-out party for me."

The oddsmakers aren't so sure that Milanovich will have a nice time tonight. Georgia Tech hasn't beaten another major-college team in 22 months, and Maryland is ranked No. 17 in the nation and on the verge of its first 5-0 month since 1983, but the Terps are only 1 1/2 -point favorites to beat the Yellow Jackets.

Maryland is 0-3 here, but more recent history is what enchants the oddsmakers. Georgia Tech (1-2, 0-1 in the ACC) hasn't played in 12 days, since a 41-14 loss at Virginia. The Terps (4-0, 2-0) have had less than five days to recuperate from a 41-28 win over Duke and integrate Milanovich into the game plan.

"Georgia Tech has got a big edge in the extra week of practice," Terps coach Mark Duffner said. "Playing on national television is a great opportunity, and I hope that would get our players back up a little quicker."

The media attention on Milanovich, who replaced redshirt sophomore Brian Cummings, went to the extreme yesterday. During the weekly ACC coaches' teleconference, Duffner was asked by an unidentified caller "if Milanovich knew what the point spread was."

Duffner, who replied, "You'll have to ask Scott," said that the quarterback situation hasn't been a distraction, and the player who works closest with them agrees.

"We've instantly improved," said center Erik Greenstein, one of two veteran starters on the offensive line. "Scott and Brian are both quality quarterbacks, and as far as communication, there's no difference between the two. At the first practice with Scott, there was no change in format, no change in tempo."

The receiving corps and superbacks Buddy Rodgers and Brian Underwood also are familiar with Milanovich, but Duffner said he concerned how Milanovich performs off a short week of practice. A scheduled Sunday night workout became meetings and film study because of adverse weather, and the Terps had just three practices with Milanovich as the No. 1 quarterback.

For five weeks, Milanovich sharpened his punting technique, played on the scout team and got work with the first-team offense only after Cummings and Orlando Strozier, the converted cornerback who now has been shifted to outside receiver.

On Maryland's last visit to Grant Field, in 1993, Milanovich threw for 261 yards and the Terps totaled 421, but failures near the end zone resulted in a 38-0 loss. That was the genesis of Black Thunder, the short-yardage offense that Strozier now figures to hand back to Cummings.

Milanovich threw for 302 yards and four touchdowns last October, when Maryland beat Georgia Tech, 42-27.

Besides less practice time, the short week also has affected the Terps in the training room. Rodgers, who's on pace for the best rushing total by a Maryland back in a decade, has a lingering calf bruise, and kicker Joe O'Donnell has played the last two games with a strained thigh muscle.

Georgia Tech, meanwhile, is as healthy as it has been all season, thanks to the week off. The offense sputtered the past two games, but should pick up with the return of flanker Derrick Steagall from a hamstring injury.

Coach George O'Leary said he worries about his team's confidence; the Yellow Jackets' only victories since 1993 have been over Western Carolina last year and Furman in this season's opener. Both are members of the Division I-AA Southern Conference.

Despite Georgia Tech's recent failures, the timing of tonight's game could represent the biggest stumbling block in Maryland's path until November, when the Terps finish the regular season against the ACC's only other ranked teams, Virginia and Florida State.

No. 17 Maryland at Georgia Tech

Time: 8

Site: Bobby Dodd Stadium/Grant Field, Atlanta

TV/radio: ESPN/WBAL (1090 AM)

Series: Georgia Tech leads, 5-2

Outlook: The focus is on a pair of fifth-year senior quarterbacks, Maryland's Scott Milanovich, who will start after serving a four-game suspension for gambling, and Donnie Davis (26-46-2), who's guided Tech to just 520 yards of offense the last two weeks. Milanovich, the Terps' career record-holder for completions and touchdowns, will face a defense that has been even more impressive than Maryland's. The Yellow Jackets are allowing 268.7 yards per game, second in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Davis doesn't figure to throw much against a defense that is allowing 87.1 yards passing per game. C. J. Williams (120.3 ypg) is one of the top backs in the ACC, but he's had trouble holding on to the ball and the Terps are second in the nation in turnover margin. It is the first national television appearance since 1989 for Maryland, which is off to its best start since 1978.

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