For Terps, options wide-open

Football: The future looks bright for surprising 7-0 Maryland, which has a rare opportunity today to catch a powerhouse, Florida State, having a down year.

October 27, 2001|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Bragging rights? League championship? National championship?

None of the above would have been connected with University of Maryland football before this surprising season in College Park, where mediocrity had become identified with the fall sport. Now, however, the possibilities seem open-ended, weeks before action starts for the men's basketball team that made the Final Four last year.

A veteran coaching staff led by Ralph Friedgen has pointed an experienced but beleaguered group of players in the right direction, leading to a No. 10 national ranking from the Associated Press and today's big game. Maryland will take on traditional Atlantic Coast Conference power Florida State University, ranked No. 19, at 3:30 p.m. in Tallahassee, Fla. (TV/Radio: Chs. 2,7/WBAL 1090 AM).

Despite an uneven season, Florida State is favored by 8 points. For one thing, the Seminoles have been almost unassailable at home, putting together a 37-game winning streak at Doak Campbell Stadium that was broken two weeks ago by the top-ranked Miami Hurricanes.

The fact that the Seminoles are in a rare rebuilding stage gives the Terps an opportunity that could be fleeting.

"We may never be in this position again," Friedgen said. "Even in the worst-case scenario, we're going to benefit from this. But don't misinterpret me, I'm going down to win."

His team's winning effort this fall - keyed by a strong defense led by Aberdeen native E.J. Henderson and a running game on offense led by Bruce Perry - breaks a five-year streak of losing seasons and comes in the first year of Fried- gen's tenure. After four years at Georgia Tech, the former Maryland assistant returned to his alma mater to replace Ron Vanderlinden, who was fired at the end of last season.

After the Terrapins' nationally televised upset of Georgia Tech on Oct. 11, Maryand Athletic Director Debbie Yow approached Friedgen to congratulate him because he had won the six games prescribed for this season as part of a five-year strategic plan for football.

"You've met your yearly goal for wins and losses," she remembered saying. "And he laughed. Obviously, he and his staff are way ahead of schedule."

The Terrapins were expected to be something of a rebuilding job because of their ho-hum record - 15-29 over the past four years -and were picked to finish seventh among the nine teams in the ACC.

But with a 7-0 start, the team leads a conference that had been dominated by Florida State since the Seminoles joined it. Since 1992, Florida State has won seven ACC titles and tied for the other two.

When the two teams meet today, the coach who last led Maryland to ACC championships, in 1983, 1984 and 1985, will be watching on TV from his home in Lexington, Va.

"I think Maryland's going to win the ballgame," Bobby Ross said yesterday. "They're well-coached, they have talent, and Ralph and Charlie Taaffe [the offensive coordinator] have done a great job with their quarterback [Shaun Hill]. ... I'm not surprised that Ralph is having a great year."

Friedgen's year could get even better if Maryland continues to win and to stay high in the Bowl Championship Series standings. The computerized standings determine participants in the national title game, the Rose Bowl on Jan. 3. The Terps are No. 8 in the BCS and are in the lead to represent the ACC in a New Year's Day bowl game, which would be the school's first since 1977.

"I could have dreamed it, but I didn't think that it was realistic," Friedgen said of the situation. "But it's here, and it's an opportunity."

Friedgen could have easily been talking about his career, which included a national championship with Georgia Tech in 1990 and a Super Bowl appearance with the San Diego Chargers in 1995, each with him as a top assistant coach. None of it had helped him land a head coaching job until last year.

Maryland, which had ignored him when he applied for the head position in 1991 and 1996, gave him a six-year contract worth $800,000 and a bigger budget to attract experienced assistants.

Taaffe, who is quarterbacks coach as well as offensive coordinator, and defensive coordinator Gary Blackney are former head coaches. Five of the new assistants average 26 years of experience. Only two coaches were retained from Vanderlinden's staff.

Among the players, 17 starters remained when Vanderlinden was fired after a 5-6 record in the 2000 season, and many of his recruits kept their commitments.

Some of the players shining now are ones Vanderlinden had anticipated would help him make a big push, such as Perry and offensive tackle C.J. Brooks.

"As a team, there were a number of kids we redshirted," or designated to sit out a year to save eligibility. "Those kids are starting to grow up, starting to come of age a bit. ... I'm happy for all of them," said Vanderlinden, a linebackers coach at Penn State.

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