In long run, Terps played to their level


TC Barring an unthinkable upset of Florida State tomorrow, the Maryland Terrapins will finish the season with a 6-5 record that raises several questions. What went wrong? And is head coach Mark Duffner on the way to saving his job?

Maybe it is a tad harsh to ask what went wrong instead of what went right after a season in which the Terps produced a winning record for only the second time since 1985. The Terps certainly raised their play a few levels after winning only nine of 33 games in Duffner's first three seasons at College Park.

But when a team shoots out to a 4-0 start and then finishes with losses in five of its last seven games, it is impossible not to wonder what happened. Did the quarterback controversy ruin the season? Did Duffner respond too slowly to a mounting offensive crisis? These are questions that certainly bear consideration.

But the truth is that nothing happened to the Terps that shouldn't have happened. They weren't a great team and they weren't a lousy team; they were somewhere in between, a little above average, and that reality simply played itself out as the season unfolded.

Nothing illuminates the Terps' status more clearly than this: Their six wins have come against teams with losing records (16-41 combined) and their four losses have come against teams with winning records (27-14 combined).

In other words, they're good enough to beat bad teams and not good enough to beat good teams. Is this so hard to figure out? The Terps started quickly and finished slowly because, well, they played the weaker part of their schedule first.

The reason some people got a little too excited about the 4-0 start (blush) was that three of the four teams the Terps beat in September had played in bowl games the year before. But each of those three -- North Carolina, West Virginia and Duke -- regressed this year, rendering the Terps' wins against them less impressive as the season progressed.

Some fans will blame Duffner's handling of the quarterback controversy as a turning point. It's an easy target: The offense, so brilliant early, was never the same after Duffner replaced then-undefeated Brian Cummings with Scott Milanovich before the Georgia Tech game, then changed his mind several times.

But blaming the Terps' downfall on the quarterback controversy is just knee-jerkism. In the end, as Cummings slumped and Milanovich pressed, it probably didn't matter who played.

What mattered was that the Terps were just finding their proper level.

Sure, Duffner was slow to react to the total disappearance of his running game, which doomed his team against Georgia Tech, Clemson and Louisville. Without a fullback to serve as a lead blocker, the run-and-shoot offense simply could not sustain a running game against solid defenses.

Duffner's switch to the I was a good idea against weak North Carolina State, but Virginia handled it. Once again, the quality of the opponent was more important than anything the Terps did or didn't do.

Obviously, Duffner needs to pick one offense and go with it next season.

The issue of whether he'll be back at all next season is really a non-issue: Yes, he will return for the fifth and last year of his contract. He also may have qualified for the one-year performance-based extension he signed last winter, the details of which were never made public.

It is only fair that he returns. He has significantly raised the program's talent level. His defense rose from 93rd in the country last year to 28th this year with one game to go. He has gone from two wins to four wins to six wins. It would be pointless not to bring him back now, particularly considering that a) he lost only one relevant player to academic ineligibility this year, and b) there wasn't a single reported off-field incident involving one of his players.

That's not to say he has bought himself the rights to a long-term run in this job. He still has much to prove. Unless either North Carolina or West Virginia wins out this year, Duffner's Maryland teams will have beaten only one opponent that finished the season with a winning record. There's no getting around the message that sends. Duffner still hasn't shown he can hang with the big guys.

The continued softening of his schedule and an upperclassmen- dominated team should ensure that he delivers another winning season in '96. But it is time for him to start beating good teams. That is the issue on which his future at Maryland hangs.

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