UM's road is leading in right direction

October 11, 2001|By Mike Preston

AS NO. 22 Maryland prepares to play No. 15 Georgia Tech tonight in one of the Terps' biggest games in the past 20 years, there is a feeling of excitement and euphoria about Maryland's returning to the glory days and possibly securing a bowl bid.

But there is a little uneasiness, too.

The last time Maryland was on the verge of something big, in 1995, they collapsed on national television to Georgia Tech, 31-3, in a Thursday night game. Their season came tumbling down. The Terps lost four of their next six to finish 6-5 under coach Mark Duffner.

So, are you experiencing a little deja vu?

Don't worry, be happy. Even if Maryland loses to Georgia Tech tonight, barring major injuries, this team won't go into the tank like the 1995 team.

The circumstances are different, and so are the head coaches. Plus, I've huddled with Miss Cleo. We're on the same page: The Terps (5-0) are pretty much bowl-bound in 2001, and first-year coach Ralph Friedgen really is onto something big besides his appetite.

"Wherever we go, people are walking up to us, patting us on the back, telling us what a nice job we did, people we don't even know," said Terps senior receiver Guilian Gary. "You go home, people are talking about us. They used to talk about us before, like when we were 3-8, but it wasn't the kind of stuff you can print."

There are some interesting parallels between the 1995 Terps and this year's version. In '95, Maryland jumped off to a 4-0 start by defeating Tulane, North Carolina, West Virginia and Duke, all unranked teams. So far this season, the Terps have beaten North Carolina, Eastern Michigan, Wake Forest, West Virginia and Virginia, all unranked.

The Georgia Tech game in '95 was on national TV, and so is this one. Ditto for both games being played on Thursday night. George O'Leary was the coach at Georgia Tech then, and is in the same capacity at the school now.

But Friedgen, then Georgia Tech's offensive coordinator, is now Maryland's coach, and the Terps don't have any divisive forces.

Back then, Maryland had a quarterback named Scott Milanovich, possibly the biggest "I" guy at the school since Boomer Esiason. Milanovich had been suspended for the first four games because of an NCAA gambling violation. Not thinking that backup Brian Cummings was the answer, Duffner had promised Milanovich he would have his starting job back if he returned.

That created tension around the team for a week. Instead of going into the game with confidence, Maryland went in with anxiety. The move disrupted the Terps' chemistry, and the Yellow Jackets ambushed their season.

Maryland will go into Bobby Dodd Stadium tonight with a quiet confidence. Win or lose, there is an anticipation that only good things can happen. The Terps get national exposure, they get their first shot at a nationally ranked team and a chance to be 7-0 heading into the Florida State game on Oct. 27, providing they beat the Yellow Jackets and Duke a week from Saturday.

"This is another new experience for our football team," Friedgen said. "They are going into a hostile environment, facing a team who thinks they should be where we are. I'm sure they are looking at us and saying, `Who are these guys?' They are expecting this game with Florida State or Clemson.

"This is a whole new deal, because we can't just say, `We're 5-0 and we're at the head of the ACC,' " Friedgen said. "With that comes a lot of responsibility. We've become a target."

That's not a new experience for Friedgen.

He helped build winners at Georgia Tech twice and in San Diego with the Chargers. Duffner never had such experience. He won only at Holy Cross in a league where his team was the only one on scholarships. In three previous seasons at Maryland, Duffner had won a total of nine games.

In 1995, the program was still trying to find its way out of the dark. After five games this season, the Terps have seen the light.

They believe in Friedgen and his system, which includes a frenetic practice pace. His offensive and defensive philosophies are sound, not built on gimmicks like Duffner's run-and-shoot offense. In three games this season against Carolina, Wake Forest and Virginia, the Terps snuffed out comeback attempts, which they wouldn't have done a year ago.

They believe.

In all honesty, Maryland should lose to Georgia Tech tonight. The Yellow Jackets have more depth and a more talented senior class. According to two NFL executives, Georgia Tech has three draftable seniors in receiver Kelly Campbell, defensive end Nick Rogers and strong safety Chris Young. There are three other possible NFL players in quarterback George Godsey, defensive tackle Merrix Watson and tailback Sean Gregory.

Right now, Maryland has none, even though that could change by the end of the season.

That tells you what a good job the Maryland coaching staff is doing. That also lets you know Maryland will not self-destruct if it loses tonight.

This is the ACC, remember, not the Southeastern Conference. Three of Maryland's six remaining games are at home. Two of them should be wins against Duke and Troy State. Maryland can also beat Clemson and N.C, State, especially with the Clemson game at home rather than in Death Valley.

But look farther down the road, and the future looks bright, especially when Friedgen gets a full season to recruit his own players. So relax and enjoy the game tonight. Don't flash back to '95. Look ahead, because the Terps will only get bigger and better.

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