COLLEGE PARK -- In the end, they were able to kick back and let their superior talent cruise to the tune of a 199-yard fourth quarter, but for 34 minutes last night Maryland was an uptight and anxious football team.
Just like last year.
This is a new season, and an improved group of Terps. They
might have been thinking about last season's collapse when they fell behind unheralded Northern Illinois 6-3 last night, but Maryland used a game-breaking play from its defense and a psychological lift from Buddy Rodgers to pull away for a 30-6 victory before 32,517 at Byrd Stadium.
There was plenty to carp about as the Terps struggled for more than a half against a 23-point underdog, but coach Mark Duffner left with much more to clap about.
"I feel good about the second half," Duffner said, "but I wasn't happy with the way we struggled in the first."
At the half, Northern Illinois, which hasn't had a winning season since 1990, had 158 yards, compared to 97 for Maryland. Defense supplied the Terps with an early 3-0 lead, but the Huskies responded with an 81-yard drive and Maryland looked like anything but a huge favorite.
What it looked like was the group that lost five of its last seven games a year ago. Instead of crumbling, however, the Terps kept cool and romped on a night when they were not at full strength.
"I didn't shout at halftime," Duffner said. "All I said was keep your poise, don't press."
Ratcliff Thomas, the Terps' leading tackler the past three seasons, ended his 33-game streak as a starter because of a dislocated shoulder. Maryland went with three linebackers who had never started, but limited Charles Talley, the 10th-leading rusher in the nation last season, to 55 yards on 22 carries.
After four years of the run-and-shoot and an emphasis on the pass, Duffner shifted to a multiple offense and promised more balance. How's this for a running game? Sixteen pass attempts by Brian Cummings, compared to 45 rushing attempts for the Terps and 274 yards on the ground, the most ever in the Duffner era.
In the second half, the Terps picked up the tempo and wore down the Huskies, who acquitted themselves well in Joe Novak's head-coaching debut.
A 51-year-old journeyman assistant who had spent the past 12 seasons as the defensive coordinator at Illinois, Novak surprised the Terps. His defense plugged the right holes in the first half, but the Huskies had no answers after Maryland's first touchdown, which came from a most unlikely source.
Delbert Cowsette, a 6-foot-1, 265-pound defensive tackle from Cleveland who was playing his first college game last night, got Maryland's first touchdown. Brett White, starting in place of Thomas at left linebacker, blindsided quarterback Brandon Barker, who coughed up the ball, right to Cowsette.
Forty-nine yards and about 15 seconds of fame later, Cowsette had the first touchdown of his life, and the Terps had a 9-6 lead with 9: 56 to go in the third quarter.
"I saw the ball pop in the air, and all I saw was green," Cowsette said.
"That was a great play for us," Cummings said. "It got the crowd up, it got us into it."
The offense was uncertain in the first half, when the most productive of its five possessions accounted for 32 yards. Duffner rested Rodgers, his ace running back, for a half before deciding he couldn't afford the luxury of keeping him on the bench.
Rodgers, the junior from Providence, R.I., who last season had the best rushing total by a Maryland back in a decade, was hampered in training camp by a pulled thigh muscle. He did not play in the first half, when Maryland's new-look offense alternated Brian Underwood and true freshman Harold Westley at tailback.
On the second play of the second half, Rodgers ran for 18 yards, Maryland's biggest gain to that point. After the defense scored, the offense came fully alive. The Terps scored three touchdowns in the last 16 minutes, the drives covering 70, 88 and 64 yards.
The first ended on an 8-yard naked bootleg by Cummings. The second included some gadget plays, as Geroy Simon went 27 yards on a reverse and a screen to Westley got 43 to set up Kendall Ogle's 1-yard scoring run with 9: 02 left. Westley closed out the scoring, going 7 yards with 3: 47 left.
Underwood had 31 of his 74 yards on one carry. Westley, a true freshman from Florida, had 59 on 16 carries. All agreed, however, that the key was Rodgers, the former Parade All-American who ignored his aching thigh and ran over the outmanned Huskies for 55 yards on only six carries.
"Buddy Rodgers showed how much he means to this team tonight," Cummings said. "I'm not taking anything away from Brian Underwood and Harold Westley, but Buddy was a sparkplug."
Pub Date: 9/01/96