In importance, UM test at Tech has high ranking

At 5-0, No. 22 Terps in national spotlight tonight against No. 15

College Football

October 11, 2001|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - How big is tonight's game between No. 22 Maryland and No. 15 Georgia Tech in Atlanta?

Let Terps wide receiver Guilian Gary offer an illustration - via the Austin Powers saga - of how the matchup dwarfs last week's game against Virginia, a 41-21 Maryland win.

"Last week was Mini-Me, this week is Dr. Evil," Gary said, referring to the little person and his father in the second Powers movie.

A bit dramatic? Perhaps, but for the first time since 1985, Maryland (5-0, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) is a ranked team playing against a ranked team. The 7:30 p.m. game is on national television (ESPN) and in prime time, making it a showcase for the team and its tailback and national rushing leader, Bruce Perry. And, against a Georgia Tech team (4-1, 1-1) that had been a national championship contender, it's another chance to improve on what has been gained with the school's best start since 1978 and the ACC lead.

For the first time in their careers, the spotlight is on the players in College Park. "Our guys like that," Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said. "They've had it the other way for far too long."

Drivers howl "5-0" as they go by the team's practices, a change from the days, not far removed, when people would say nastier things. There's a reason to anticipate SportsCenter on Sunday mornings, when the coaches' poll comes out. The Terps are No. 20 in the coaches' poll.

"What's real strange is when I turned on the TV and saw that we were ahead of Kansas State," said quarterback Shaun Hill, who witnessed the growth of that program as a youth growing up in Kansas and was briefly jolted by the thought of it as inferior to Maryland.

That's not the only mental adjustment Hill and his teammates have had to make. The early success has boosted hopes from mere improvement, with 17 returning starters from last year, to an ACC championship.

Before the season, "we talked about being in some areas, in the top three to five in the conference in offense, in defense and in the standings," Hill said. "We're expecting more now."

Though he lauded Friedgen's job so far at Maryland, Clemson coach Tommy Bowden took a wait-and-see approach in appraising the Terps.

"The two favorites are Georgia Tech and Florida State, and they haven't played either yet," Bowden said. "This game on Thursday night will be a good indicator."

Friedgen said he's aware of his team's standing as a dubious monarch within the ACC, holding the lead without playing any of the top preseason picks in the conference - Florida State, Georgia Tech or Clemson.

"I'm sure they are looking at us and saying, `Who are these guys?' " Friedgen said. "They are expecting this game with Florida State or Clemson."

Georgia Tech is the best opponent to date for Maryland, which suffered its last loss to the Yellow Jackets, 35-22, in College Park to end last season. The offense that Friedgen directed in Atlanta as offensive coordinator in 2000 is the same one he must now solve in 2001.

Led by quarterback George Godsey and wide receiver Kelly Campbell, Tech is averaging 460 yards of total offense and scoring 39.8 points a game under new offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien.

The job of Maryland defensive coordinator Gary Blackney is to come up with a game plan that puts enough pressure on Godsey to disrupt him while not leaving cornerbacks Tony Okanlawon and Dennard Wilson exposed against Campbell and fellow wide-out Kerry Watkins.

Linebacker Aaron Thompson, who has been a part of defenses torched by Georgia Tech for 500 yards or more in three of his four years at Maryland, said a heavy burden will fall on the secondary. It's likely the Terps will continue to blitz, and Godsey excels at getting rid of the ball quickly and accurately.

"Our safeties and cornerbacks have to be on point, because they read their [hot reads] real well," said Thompson, who also spoke of the offense's diversity. "They mix up everything. You've got option, some draws, three- or four-receiver sets."

Likewise, Georgia Tech coach George O'Leary said, with no disrespect to Perry, that Maryland's defense is his biggest concern, particularly the 15 turnovers it has forced this season.

Maryland leads the ACC in rushing defense, allowing 104 yards, and in scoring defense, allowing 14.2 points.

"They're making big plays," O'Leary said. "There's a lot of movement. They make more big tackle-for-loss plays, which creates more situations for the defense. [Blackney] has done a good job of putting guys in position."

Tech's defense, thin at linebacker with the temporary loss of Daryl Smith and backup Ather Brown, held the Terps to 20 rushing yards in last year's game.

But for Maryland, which got two touchdown passes from Hill and 143 rushing yards from Perry last week, a lot seems to have changed.

"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. "We become a target."

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