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Terps' season fast turning into a salvage operation


COLLEGE PARK -- The big question now is not whether Brian Cummings or Scott Milanovich should play quarterback. The big question is whether the Maryland Terrapins have peaked. Hit the wall. Shown all the improvement they're going to show in 1995.

That seems a possibility after the Terps' third straight poor performance, a 17-0 loss to Clemson yesterday at Byrd Stadium.

They still have a 5-2 record, but they haven't played a good game in a month and three of their four remaining games are on the road, where they're 8-24 in the '90s.

Two bowl scouts were in the house yesterday, but it could be that the Terps will have to settle for the lesser accomplishment of manufacturing their first winning season since 1990. If they can get that one more win they need.

Yesterday, it was hard to envision them beating anyone else this season. Their running game was nonexistent for the third straight game, their defense was pushed around and Cummings was woeful. An average Clemson team was stronger, quicker and unlucky not to win by 30.

The Terps were an embarrassment to 5-1 teams everywhere.

Cummings? His passing was errant, his judgment was debatable and he showed little of the resourcefulness that won him the job over Milanovich.

It could be that the controversy has succeeded in messing up both quarterbacks' heads and perhaps the entire team. The Terps were 4-0 without Milanovich, but they've scored only one touchdown since his return. The feel-good chemistry of September has soured.

Milanovich was dressed in his funeral outfit yesterday: black socks pulled up to his knee pads and a baseball cap with the NFL insignia, worn backward. When he wasn't in the game to punt, he stood on the sidelines chomping gum and rarely interacting with teammates.

He had a right to complain about not getting a chance to pitch in relief, as Cummings did when Milanovich was ineffective in the last game. But it wouldn't have made a difference who played yesterday. When a team rushes 29 times for 36 yards, as the Terps did, it isn't going to win.

The total disappearance of the Terps' rushing game is the common thread connecting their poor performances against Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Clemson. After rushing for an average of 179 yards in their first four games, they have averaged just 19 in the past three. Talk about a free fall.

The absence of rushing success has allowed defenses to blitz and harry the quarterbacks and concentrate on stopping the pass. Which is a lot easier to do when the run is no threat.

What has happened to the rushing game? The line isn't opening the holes it was earlier. And the play-calling has turned predictable. The Terps stuck with the run far too long yesterday against Clemson's run-oriented defense.

"Schematically and physically, they just beat us today," Cummings said, "It didn't matter whether it was me or Scott in there."

It also didn't help that the Terps' defense was pushed around. Clemson controlled the ball for long stretches with its running game, which produced an astounding 320 yards.

It was enough to make you wonder if the Terps have done all they're going to do this season. There would be no shame in that. They had the worst defense in Division I history two years ago and went 4-7 last year. They already have come a long way; a winning season would be a major step forward.

The problem with that reasoning, of course, is that the Terps got everyone thinking big with their 4-0 start. A winning season seemed a foregone conclusion. A bowl game was a more interesting goal.

Yet it could be that the headstone on this season reads that the Terps started fast and just weren't good enough to keep up the pace. Let's face it, three of their wins are against Duke, Tulane and Wake Forest, none of which are any good. What we're seeing now could be the Terps simply finding their level.

Yes, they still have four games left, plenty of time to get going again.

"We're not in a horrible position at 5-2," linebacker Ratcliff Thomas said.

But they're hardly road warriors, and the quarterback controversy isn't going away.

Coach Mark Duffner should stick with Cummings for next week's game at Louisville -- Cummings has generated all five wins, after all -- but bring in Milanovich if things don't go well. Why not?

Clearly, though, Duffner faces bigger problems now than choosing his quarterback. Where has his running game gone? Why is his defense getting pushed around? Is it possible to reverse what is happening? If yesterday's game is any indication, neither the Terps nor their fans wants to know the answers to those questions.

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