COLLEGE PARK -- What used to be the one sure thing about Maryland football -- an offense that could score and set passing records -- is now the Terps' biggest question mark.
Maryland is 5-2 heading into tomorrow's nonconference game at Louisville, but instead of being upbeat about the possibility of the program's best record in a decade, the Terps are mired in self-doubt, second-guessing and their worst scoring drought since 1970.
Defensive improvement was the main reason the Terps got off to 4-0 start, and while that unit has backed off some, two losses in the past three games can be blamed on offensive woes. In that span, Maryland scored 12 points on a touchdown and two field goals, and its total offense slipped to an average of 319.3 yards, 84th among the nation's 108 Division I-A teams.
It's a radical reversal from coach Mark Duffner's first three seasons, when the defense was weak but the run-and-shoot rewrote the Maryland passing and total offense records.
The obvious excuse, but one that Duffner refuses to acknowledge, is that the offense lost its rhythm when Brian Cummings was replaced at quarterback by Scott Milanovich after the latter completed a four-game suspension for gambling.
"I don't know if it's a coincidence," Duffner said. "As far as the quarterbacks go, the two have been productive, and we haven't said enough about that. It's not always black and white. Two and two doesn't always equal four."
This is the second straight year that indecision meant an ineffective offense for Maryland.
Milanovich also was involved in a quarterback controversy then, as he didn't win his job back from Kevin Foley until the sixth game. At roughly the same time, Duffner and offensive coordinator Dan Dorazio decided to stop wasting practice time on seldom-used sets that included a tight end or fullback, and focus exclusively on the run-and-shoot.
The results were stunning. In the last five games of 1994, Milanovich completed 72.1 percent of his passes for 1,570 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Duffner was hoping for more of the same when he installed Milanovich as starter for the Georgia Tech game Sept. 28. Milanovich threw for 352 yards in a 31-3 loss. When he again had difficulty with the blitz the next week at Wake Forest, he was replaced by Cummings, who missed several open receivers in a 17-0 loss to Clemson.
"I don't know how much it [the quarterback changes] has affected the offense, but it has taken its toll," said outside receiver Jermaine Lewis, who has a school-record 168 catches. "It took away from the team. We were going in one direction. . . . We've had a lot of things happen to us at once."
The offense wasn't exactly setting the world afire during the 4-0 start -- the only time it surpassed last year's yardage average was against Duke, which has the nation's 106th-rated defense -- but the breaks went its way.
The Terps were among the national leaders in turnover margin, and the defense kept giving the offense great field position. Now that margin has decreased, a strong running game disappeared as quickly as it surfaced, receivers aren't getting open with the same frequency, and when they do, the result is often a drop or an overthrow.
In short, the offense is looking like the inexperienced unit it is.
With Milanovich out, Lewis is one of only three senior starters. Cummings is a sophomore, as are backs Buddy Rodgers and Brian Underwood, who came into the season with a combined 80 carries.
They're working behind an offensive line that has three starters who had never played a down of offense before this season. One of them, left tackle Darryl Gilliam, missed most of the Georgia Tech game and all of Wake Forest with a knee injury, and his replacement was a freshman.
Recognizing the blitz or running the ball was a problem in those games. The Terps faced a three-man front last week and still were unable to run against Clemson.
"We still feel it's a talented group of players, but on game days, they're learning some lessons," Dorazio said of the line. "The kids we've got right now, everything's happening for the first time in their life. When that occurs, there are going to be times when there are breakdowns."
Dorazio cited the necessity of accumulating thousands of repetitions in practice, and at the moment, neither quarterback is probably getting the work he needs. Dorazio estimated that Cummings got 60 percent and Milanovich 40 percent of the reps at quarterback last week. When Milanovich came on last year, almost all of the practice time was his.
Dorazio, who has worked for Duffner since 1989, said he never has experienced an offensive breakdown like this.
"What's frustrating is that we're missing on plays that could be had," Dorazio said. "We're kind of like a baseball player in a hitting slump. We're frustrated, but we're going to come around. . . . I know I feel like a caged animal."