COLLEGE PARK - As they prepare to face the heart of their Atlantic Coast Conference schedule in the coming weeks, the Maryland Terrapins are looking a little sickly.
Their offense is sputtering, beginning with a quarterback position battle that has yet to be settled with authority. They are committing too many turnovers. Their defense is showing resilience but is still failing to make the big play on too many occasions.
Look for some confidence to be restored tonight when a temporary cure known as Eastern Michigan comes to Byrd Stadium.
"We can't wait to show everyone what we're capable of doing. We need to break out and play our kind of ball," junior cornerback Curome Cox said.
"We knew our first three games weren't going to make or break our season. We don't feel like we've hit a wall, but we also don't feel like we're executing the way we should. We feel like we're beating ourselves more. That's why this game is so important to us."
A year after routing Eastern Michigan by 47 points in the first meeting between the two schools, anything less than a manhandling of the Eagles the second time around probably will leave the Terps feeling unfulfilled.
Not that Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen is thinking much about victory margins. Maryland's second-year coach wants his youthful squad to make serious progress, especially on the offensive side of the ball, especially at the game's defining position.
Right now, the ACC's defending champions are not getting it done, having combined to score 10 points in losses to Notre Dame and Florida State. Junior quarterback Scott McBrien, ranked last in the conference in passing efficiency, will start his fourth straight game after holding off backup and sophomore Chris Kelley in what amounted to an open tryout at practice this week.
Neither passer has moved the team on the ground or thrown well with much frequency. Part of that can be traced to the continued absence of junior tailback and reigning ACC Offensive Player of the Year Bruce Perry, who is recovering from a torn groin muscle and is expected to return next week against visiting Wofford. Senior Chris Downs, one of the pleasant surprises of 2002, will start his third straight game in Perry's spot.
Dropped passes and missed blocking assignments have played a role in the offensive failures. Turnovers have been a killer. Six miscues doomed any chance of a competitive game against Florida State last week. For the season, Maryland has committed nine turnovers, and its seven interceptions nearly equal last year's total (nine).
Friedgen said he has no plans to insert Kelley at any preordained time, to get a closer look at both quarterbacks.
"I'm going to do whatever it takes to win the game first. If we go in and turn the ball over six times, that's not going to happen," Friedgen said. "We've got to take care of the football. That's something I coach very hard, and it's like a spike through my heart every time we throw one of those [interceptions].
"I think both [quarterbacks] are trying really hard. I've never thought effort was the problem. It's just a matter of learning. We've cut [the offensive scheme] down pretty good again. I don't know how much more we can cut it down."
Even though Maryland will adjust its line personnel by giving sophomore Kyle Schmitt a start at center - senior Todd Wike did not practice last week while trying to shake off the effects of a concussion suffered against Florida State - the Terps should be able to pound the Mid-American Conference doormats.
Eastern Michigan (1-2) has allowed a whopping 121 points in its two losses, which include a 65-13 rout by Toledo. The Eagles are giving up 536.7 yards a game, including 279.3 on the ground. Their only hope would appear to be another turnover-prone night by Maryland, combined with another big game from senior receiver Kevin Walter.
"It's important that we really improve, this week, next week and the week after that [at West Virginia], going into the ACC," Friedgen said.
Eastern Michigan (1-2) at Maryland (1-2)
Site: Byrd Stadium, College Park
TV/Radio: Comcast pay-per-view/WNST (1570 AM); WTTR (1470 AM); WAMD (970 AM)
Line: Maryland by 35
Series: Maryland leads, 1-0
Last meeting: Maryland won, 50-3, on Sept. 8, 2001, in College Park.
Last game: Florida State defeated Maryland, 37-10; Eastern Michigan beat Southeast Missouri State, 35-32.
Maryland offense vs. Eastern Michigan defense: Like they did when they rushed 50 times and dominated Akron two weeks ago, the Terps figure to control the line of scrimmage against an Eastern Michigan defense that is giving up 279.3 rushing yards a game and 51 points a game. Senior tailback Chris Downs had some good moments against Florida State and should enjoy many tonight. Look for Maryland quarterbacks Scott McBrien and Chris Kelley to get significant playing time.
Maryland defense vs. Eastern Michigan offense: Eagles tailback Ime Akpan and wide-out Kevin Walter are capable of having big games, but it's not likely tonight. Maryland linebackers E.J. Henderson and Leon Joe should pad their tackling statistics, and the Terps should be able to pressure quarterback Troy Edwards constantly in long-yardage passing downs. Remember, the Terps kept Notre Dame's offense out of the end zone three weeks ago; the big plays Maryland gave up to Florida State a week ago will not materialize tonight.
Special teams: Maryland's Steve Suter is turning into one of the ACC's better return men, and punter Brooks Barnard is rounding back into form after struggling in his opening game. He leads the ACC with a 42.0-yard average. Nick Novak is 4-for-6 in field-goal attempts, with one blocked. Eastern Michigan kicker Eric Klaban is 0-for-3 and has yet to attempt a field goal inside 40 yards. David Rysko is averaging six punts a game and should get plenty of practice again.