Stepping into season, UM seeks to stride past Heels

More than 40,000 expected at Byrd

College Football

September 01, 2001|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - For Maryland's football team, today's season opener against visiting North Carolina marks the beginning of the walk.

The mere talk has been everything in the nine months leading up to now, starting when Ralph Friedgen stepped up to a podium to introduce himself as the head football coach.

The real deal begins with the noon kickoff at Byrd Stadium, bringing uncertainty with it.

"I don't think you know the first time you coach a team," said Friedgen, who makes his collegiate head-coaching debut after 32 years as an assistant.

Once, he had filled in for Bobby Ross during a pre-season game while with the San Diego Chargers. "You don't know how [the players] are going to react.

"They don't know how I'm going to react."

Nonetheless, the team is eager to find out, ready to push the "reset" button on two straight 5-6 seasons in hopes of a better outcome in 2001, such as the school's first winning season in six years.

More immediately, the Terrapins get to compete against others in front of an expected crowd of 40,000-plus, instead of beating on each other in front of a smattering of supporters.

"It's been a long preseason. ... The whole summer, then camp - it's finally here," junior linebacker E.J. Henderson said. "I remember looking back, thinking, `It's never going to come.' "

Last year at North Carolina, Maryland gained more yardage, committed fewer turnovers, caught more breaks and held a lead into the fourth quarter, only to let the game slip away in the final minutes and lose, 13-10.

In recent years, the Terps have shown a general intolerance for prosperity, going 0-6 in games that could have earned them a bowl berth.

"We were in tough positions and we didn't know how to handle it," said standout linebacker Aaron Thompson.

The 2001 Terps are bigger at front-line positions; the defense is more experienced; and the offense is introducing a system less predictable.

As opposed to heavy hitting, the hallmark of this year's practices have been situations - third-and-shorts, second-and-longs, last-minute field-goal tries and goal-line defenses.

Simulated or not, practicing these scenarios has apparently created a comfort zone for the players. They feel they are ready for anything.

"When game time comes, we've experienced it," said sophomore receiver Jafar Williams, who has moved into a starting spot. "That was the biggest problem we had last year. We didn't know how to come through."

Friedgen believes that a win today would be a major breakthrough, even though it would be the team's fourth straight in a season opener. The difference would be in the slightly tougher opponent, as opposed to James Madison and Temple (twice).

"I think it would really help us. I don't think there's any denying that," Friedgen said. "It would help the kids know that they can do it. We're really going to have to rise up when that occasion comes and fight through it."

In contrast, North Carolina has its 41-27 loss to Oklahoma to judge itself by. The Tar Heels displayed good defense, even special teams and poor offense at the start when Ronald Curry was playing quarterback.

Curry will start again, despite a two-touchdown performance by Darian Durant in the second half.

North Carolina coach John Bunting, a Silver Spring native, said he expects his team to benefit from its encounter with the nation's No. 3 team.

"I fully anticipate that we'll play better than we played last week," he said. "If we don't, then Oklahoma was a waste of time."

One question for Maryland is whether its defense can shut down Carolina, a team with a lot of speed. In fall camp, the Terps' defenders have been well ahead of the offense, the latter grappling with Friedgen's new system.

The defenders believe they can handle the Tar Heels, and figure they may not need to carry as much of the load as during the scrimmages. Shaun Hill is solid at quarterback, Bruce Perry seems to be the starter at tailback and a few receivers like Williams may emerge.

"Our offense is doing good enough where we won't be on the field the whole game," Henderson said. "I don't think we have to worry about shutting them out."

Maryland today

Opponent: North Carolina (0-1)

Site: Byrd Stadium, College Park

Time: Noon

TV/Radio: Chs. 2, 7/WBAL (1090 AM)

Line: North Carolina by 3

Today's game

North Carolina (0-1) at Maryland

Site: Byrd Stadium, College Park

Time: Noon

TV/Radio: Chs. 2, 7/WBAL (1090 AM), WTEM (980 AM)

Series: North Carolina leads 35-27-1

Last week: North Carolina lost to No. 3 Oklahoma, 41-27. This is Maryland's opener.

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