COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK -- Maybe the Maryland defense, bolstered by the return of veteran linebacker Ratcliff Thomas, can stop the Virginia offense. Let's say coach Mark Duffner's multiple offense shows off its new balance to the tune of 400-plus yards.
The Terps could do those things, dominate the trenches, and still leave Charlottesville a loser Saturday if they don't perform well on special teams.
"They [Virginia] are the best special teams team in the country," Duffner said yesterday.
When Virginia posted a historic 33-28 victory over Florida State last year, Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden said special teams were the difference. Central Michigan had the ball 11 minutes longer than the Cavaliers last week, but No. 22 Virginia returned a kickoff for a touchdown, got another off a blocked punt and rolled, 55-21.
Virginia has a consistent kicker in Rafael Garcia, and coach George Welsh can trade field position with anyone thanks to Will Brice, who's rated the No. 2 punting prospect in the nation by ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper.
"When I first got here, the special teams were not great," Brice said. "They didn't really have an emphasis. We've stressed that special teams can win games. Almost every time he speaks before a game, Coach Welsh mentions that. Our players have come to recognize their importance."
Maryland had spotty special teams play in last week's 39-15 win over Alabama-Birmingham. Russell Edwards had a punt blocked, and three of the Terps' six penalties came on punt returns, but Joe O'Donnell kicked a 42-yard field goal. Three of O'Donnell's kickoffs resulted in touchbacks, and none of the three returned came out past the 21.
Virginia is a 13-point favorite, but the Terps' defense will be bolstered by the return of Thomas, the left linebacker who missed the first two games with a separated shoulder. Wide receiver Mancel Johnson, suspended for the first two games, also will return.
On the road
Maryland is coming off its first winning season since 1990 and has handled its first two opponents, but the Terps aren't going to get much respect in the Atlantic Coast Conference until they beat a ranked team, or knock off a formidable opponent on the road.
Maryland has lost 16 straight to ranked teams since a win at then-No. 8 Virginia in 1990. Only once in Duffner's first four seasons did the Terps beat a team that ended the season with a winning record.
"You have to have the right mentality to win on the road," cornerback A. J. Johnson said. "You have to believe that you're going to go in there and take away someone's pride. Some of us have wanted to do that badly in the past, but others didn't think that way. Now, the whole team believes."
Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow does not discuss contracts with future nonconference opponents, but apparently the Terps have games lined up. The Northern Illinois media guide reports that the Terps will go to DeKalb in 2003, and that the Huskies will make their second trip to Byrd Stadium in 2004. . . . The ACC has announced starting times for Maryland's games at Duke, Oct. 26 (noon), Clemson, Nov. 2 (3: 30 p.m.) and Florida State in Miami, Nov. 23 (3: 30 p.m.).
In Mark Duffner's first four seasons at Maryland, the Terps have only one win away from Byrd Stadium against an opponent that ended the season with a winning record:
Year Team .. .. .. .. Final record
1992 Duke .. .. .. .. .. 2-9
1993 Wake Forest . .. .. 2-9
1994 West Virginia .. .. 7-6
1995 Tulane ... .. .. .. 2-9
1995 Wake Forest . .. . 1-10
1995 N.C. State .. .. .. 3-8
Pub Date: 9/11/96