COLLEGE PARK -- If a wide receiver scurried even a yard outside his route at practice this week, Maryland football coach Ralph Friedgen noticed it.
There just hasn't been much room for error this season, and now, with only two games left on the schedule, there's a little more at stake.
"We're practicing for a championship," quarterback Sam Hollenbach said.
Those within the program agreed the Terps (8-2, 5-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) are going to have to play better football to get it, especially heading into today's noon game at No. 20 Boston College (8-2, 4-2), which features possibly the most balanced offense in the ACC. No. 21 Maryland is tied with Wake Forest (9-1, 5-1) for first place in the Atlantic Division, and Boston College trails them by one game. Maryland will host the Demon Deacons next Saturday for what could determine the division winner.
Week after week the Terps have teetered on the brink of returning to obscurity - where they spent the previous two seasons - but instead garnered national attention by winning six games by a combined 17 points, including five in a row by a combined 13 points. With youth and mental mistakes their biggest obstacles, players and coaches insist that Maryland is just inches away from being a better football team, one that makes plays consistently instead of creating a handful of game-changing moments good enough to escape with a one- or two-point win.
"We haven't really played our key game, which is scary because we're winning, and beating some of the best teams in the conference," wide receiver Isaiah Williams said. "When we play a real attention-to-detail game and get all of our assignments right, we'll probably beat a team by three or four touchdowns. I think we can be a lot better, honestly."
Hollenbach, who put his team in position to kick the game-winning field goal as the clock expired at Clemson on Nov. 4, said that will happen once the team realizes that "every play means something," not just the ones late in the fourth quarter.
"The past couple of weeks, if we learned one thing, it's that it comes down to a play here and a play there," he said. "If we could just make sure we take every play and make it the most important one of the game, mentally - if it's a third-and-four in the first quarter or something like that, just be like, 'Man, we have to get this.' I think that would really help us as a whole maybe get a little more margin of victory than one point."
The Terps enter today's game ranked 101st out of 119 teams in rushing defense and 83rd in total defense. Linebacker Wesley Jefferson said they need to "win the play before the determining play," meaning make the stop on third down instead of fourth-and-one.
"If everybody really plays to their potential and does their job, I think we could be a lot better, even in a short time," Jefferson said. "It's just little things that won't get us off the field on third down. Somebody might have a missed assignment or might not play the right technique. It's just the little things."
It's those little things, though, that Friedgen has emphasized this week.
"We've had very little time to breathe all year," he said. "Every down, every series is a crucial series.
"Sometimes when I watch the tape on Sundays, I just kind of shake my head."
He's not the only one.
"There's not a day that goes by I don't think how are we winning these games by one, two, three, four points," Williams said. "You try to look back on the film and say where did we go right and where are we going wrong and how are we getting these breaks like this. But we're getting them. And we're winning. I'm not making any apologies."
Maryland's running game has been held to under 60 yards in each of the past two games, but Hollenbach compensated with more than 200 passing yards on both occasions, including touchdown passes of 65 and 96 yards to Darrius Heyward-Bey last Saturday in a 14-13 win over Miami.
"Coming into this week, I know [Boston College] has seen the film of last week's game," running back Keon Lattimore said. "You gotta cover that. You gotta respect that. There's no way you can just overlook the fact what those guys did throwing the ball. That's going to eliminate the eight- or nine-man box. When you do that, we're going to run the ball."
Friedgen lamented the fact, though, that Maryland allowed the Hurricanes back into the game.
"That's part maturity," he said. "It's part of being good enough against the people we're playing to be able to put people away. That's not easy with the people we've been playing."
Jefferson said the Terps' best is yet to come.
"I think we're getting better, continually, but I don't think we're peaking yet," he said, "not just yet."
TERPS' TIGHT GAMES
Maryland has won six games this season - including five in a row - by six points or fewer:
Sept. 23 vs. Florida Int'l, 14-10 Christian Varner intercepted a pass at the Terps' 3 as time expired to preserve the victory.
Oct. 14 at Virginia, 28-26 Maryland trailed by 20 heading into the second half. Josh Wilson's coverage prevented a game-tying two-point conversion with 2:37 left. Erin Henderson had a 45-yard interception return for a fourth-quarter touchdown, and Keon Lattimore ran 56 yards for the go-ahead TD.
Oct. 21 vs. N.C. State, 26-20 A forced fumble and recovery by Marcus Wimbush, and interceptions by J.J. Justice and Henderson were the key plays.
Oct. 28 vs. Florida State, 27-24 Jeremy Navarre blocked a 46-yard field-goal attempt with 42 seconds left.
Nov. 4 at Clemson, 13-12 Sam Hollenbach drove the Terps 54 yards to Clemson's 12, setting up Dan Ennis' game-winning 31-yard field goal as time expired.
Last Saturday vs. Miami, 14-13 Wilson's pass breakup late in the fourth quarter led to Trey Covington's interception and halted a potential game-winning drive. Isaiah Gardner forced a fumble on a punt return with 1:30 left, and Justice recovered it.
Heather A. Dinich
Ways to win
The three scenarios that would advance Maryland to the Atlantic Coast Conference title game vs. Georgia Tech at 1 p.m. Dec. 2 in Jacksonville, Fla.:
Maryland (8-2, 5-1 ACC) wins its noon game today at Boston College (8-2, 4-2), and beats Wake Forest (9-1, 5-1) at home next weekend in the regular-season finale.
Maryland loses at Boston College, but beats Wake Forest and gets some help. Boston College would have to lose to Miami.
Maryland loses at Boston College but beats Wake Forest, BC beats Miami, and Wake Forest beats Virginia Tech. The Terps would win the resulting three-way tie because they would have the best division record.
Matchup -- No. 21 Maryland (8-2, 5-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) at No. 20 Boston College (8-2, 4-2)
Time -- Noon
TV/Radio -- ESPN/105.7 FM,1300 AM
Line -- Boston College by 8
Series -- Boston College leads 2-1
Last meeting -- Boston College won, 31-16, on Nov. 19, 2005, in College Park
Maryland offense vs. Boston College defense -- In the Terps' past four wins, quarterback Sam Hollenbach has completed 67 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns with just one interception, but that last statistic might change this weekend. The Eagles have intercepted two or more passes in five straight games and are tied for fourth nationally with 16 this season. Boston College is allowing 306 yards per game, but the Terps haven't mustered more than 60 on the ground in either of their past two games. Both teams rank among the top three in the conference in kickoff returns, with the Eagles leading the league.
Maryland defense vs. Boston College offense -- The Eagles are undefeated at Alumni Stadium this season - where the Terps have never played - and have outscored opponents 113-10 in their past four home games. Quarterback Matt Ryan leads the ACC in passing with 253.6 yards per game. The Eagles are a dual-threat team, as running backs L.V. Whitworth and Andre Callender each rushed for more than 100 yards last Saturday against Duke. The Terps' rushing defense ranks 11th in the ACC, allowing 167.7 yards per game, but Maryland has made key stops when needed. Josh Wilson is second in the ACC with 12 pass breakups, and Wesley Jefferson and Erin Henderson are tied for second in the conference at 90 tackles each.
Heather A. Dinich