COLLEGE PARK — Maryland's season opener here against Howard seems months ago, not 28 days. The Terps' two victories in Florida were certainly important — particularly the double-overtime win at Central Florida on Sept. 17 — but not as vital as one would be Saturday against Purdue.
When the 3-0 Terps open their Big Ten schedule at Maryland Stadium against the 2-1 Boilermakers in the schools' first meeting since a bowl game a decade ago, first-year coach DJ Durkin is hoping not only for a bigger crowd for homecoming than the Terps had for Howard, but also his team's best performance to date.
Coming off a bye week that helped his Terps return to a more even keel after the emotional win in Orlando and helped his quarterback, senior Perry Hills, recover from an apparent shoulder injury in the second overtime, Durkin knows how critical this game could be to the rest of the season.
"Opening the Big Ten season, there's a different level of intensity about that. We're playing conference games now," Durkin said this week. "Not to diminish any games we've played at this point now, all the wins and losses count, but these do count a little extra."
Said senior offensive tackle Michael Dunn, "It's basically a new season for us. Every game counts a little bit more now."
If the players needed any reminder of that, Durkin and his staff made sure to keep the Big Ten constantly in their thoughts. Conference banners and signs adorned the halls and the team's locker room at Gossett Team House, and the strength coaches wore Big Ten hats during practice.
During water breaks, the players even drank what they referred to Wednesday as "Big Ten water."
A reporter asked wide receiver DeAndre Lane (Catonsville) what it tasted like.
"It tasted like water," Lane said with a smile.
Lane recalled what Durkin told the team in the visiting dressing room at Bright House Networks Stadium after the 30-24 win over Central Florida, when true freshman quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome took over for Hills and raced 24 yards for a touchdown on his first play from scrimmage.
"The best part of being 3-0, like Coach Durkin said, is that you have a chance to be 4-0," Lane said. "That's just the way we're looking at."
A victory Saturday would help match Maryland's best start since 2013. In their last season playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Terps took a 4-0 record into Florida State, only to get crushed by the No. 8 Seminoles, 63-0.
If Maryland beats Purdue, the Terps would be 4-0 going into Penn State next week.
Tom Dienhart, who covers the Big Ten for the Big Ten Network, said in an interview this week that the next two games could shape the type of season the Terps have in Durkin's first year, and could ultimately help get more recruits to Maryland.
"If you look at the schedule, they could start 6-0 maybe," Dienhart said. "If they take care of business Saturday and then go to Penn State and win, that's huge. These next two games will probably determine if they have a shot at a bowl game."
A must-win on the first Saturday of October?
"You hate to put that much stock in a late September, early October game. It's a big game [against Purdue]. … Penn State is a winnable game too," Dienhart said. "To me it's all gravy; nobody expected Maryland to get to a bowl game this year. The fact that we're even having this conversation four weeks into the season is already a great indication of the work Durkin's done."
Dienhart said Maryland's fast start can pay off in recruiting, and Durkin made a point to use the trips to Miami for Florida International and then Orlando to flood the state with his assistants for visits to high school prospects the past three weeks.
"You can go out and sell kids a dream, but Durkin can actually go out and show kids tangibly that they're winning games," Dienhart said. "It looks like they have a chance at a bowl in his first year, and that would be a heck of a feat."
Senior defensive end Roman Braglio (McDonogh) acknowledged Tuesday that a victory over Purdue "could set the tone, absolutely," but added "this game is just as important as every other game. We're going to come out and do the best we can and hopefully … we should come out with a win."
Junior linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. said this week's Big Ten opener has a much different feel than it did a year ago. The Terps were 2-2 in the non-conference schedule and coming off a 45-6 thrashing at West Virginia when they opened up the Big Ten at home against No. 22 Michigan.
Maryland lost, 28-0.
"The morale is different around the building," Carter said Wednesday. "We didn't go into the Big Ten standings with a loss on our record [this year]. Just to be able to get the win against UCF in double overtime was a big confidence booster. We knew we had each other's backs."
One of the added features to the preparation for the Purdue game was coming into the Gossett Team House on Tuesday with the Maryland fight song blaring through the loud speakers. Durkin wants his players thinking about that when they take the field Saturday, preparing for Purdue and for what they hope will be another postgame celebration.
"We can have that in our minds, after the game, singing the fighting song," Carter said. "That's just something that coach preached to us, be ready to go."
Despite the team's sporadic success since he got to Maryland, Carter said he knew the fight song.
"I've learned the words over time," he said.
This year, they might have a new meaning.