Tossup game gives Terps chance to coin an identity

West Virginia is first foe of '02 with similar ability

October 05, 2002|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - They have been flattened by two heavyweights and have toyed with three lightweights. It's about time the Maryland Terrapins face someone their own size and gain a true reading of their progress, and what better way to tune up for the rest of their Atlantic Coast Conference schedule than to face an interstate rival in a hostile setting?

At many of its previous meetings with West Virginia, Maryland learned things about itself. Today should be no different.

After suffering lopsided losses to Notre Dame and Florida State and gaining one-sided wins over Akron, Eastern Michigan and Wofford with a team lacking senior leadership and consistency at quarterback - not to mention its best offensive weapon from a year ago - the Terps are wondering just how good they are as they seek their third straight win.

"We've lost the games we were supposed to lose, and we've won the games we were supposed to win. Now, we have a game where it's more even, from what the outside people have to say," said Terps senior center Todd Wike, alluding to the three-point spread that separates Maryland from the favored Mountaineers.

"This game will tell us how much better we've really gotten since the Florida State game. This is definitely going to show us where we are as a team."

If the young Terps (3-2) are maturing the way coach Ralph Friedgen thinks they are, today's 40th meeting with West Virginia (3-1) would be the ideal time to prove how quickly they are growing up. It's a contest with a few subplots.

For the first time in 2002, Maryland is playing a true road game. Its only trip away from Byrd Stadium was in the season opener at neutral Giants Stadium, where Notre Dame dropped the Terps, 22-0, in the Kickoff Classic.

The Terps believe their defense is much improved in recent weeks, and derailing a West Virginia offense that, behind senior running back Avon Cobourne, leads the nation in rushing with 345.5 yards per game, would back up that assertion. The Mountaineers' attack gained legitimacy with a recent 35-32 win at Cincinnati, which nearly upset Ohio State last month.

The most compelling game-within-a-game is the return of Terps junior quarterback Scott McBrien, who transferred from West Virginia a year ago and is still in the developmental stages of mastering Friedgen's offense. Friedgen was so concerned with McBrien maintaining his game-day focus in his return to West Virginia that he barred him from media interviews last week.

McBrien has made strides forward against the likes of Eastern Michigan and Wofford, but now he will attempt to step up against stiffer competition. The Terps are averaging 189 yards passing, sixth in the ACC. Part of that can be traced to a developing offensive line and a group of inconsistent receivers. Part also can be attributed to the absence of Bruce Perry, whose torn groin muscle threatens to squelch his season.

Ultimately, it all comes back to McBrien, who needs to shine on an unfriendly stage against a defense that probably will try to overload the line of scrimmage and force the left-hander to pass Maryland to victory against its cover-three zone alignments.

"I think Scott is starting to find a rhythm and starting to read things better. He's not where he needs to be, but he's getting better," said Friedgen, who defended his decision to silence McBrien last week. "Right now, I'm worried about Scott learning the game plan and executing it. Just go out and play. Unless they do something illegal, none of the people in the stands is going to hit him."

Said McBrien before last week's 37-8 victory over Wofford, which followed a 300-yard passing game against overmatched Eastern Michigan: "I feel more comfortable. I have to keep doing what I've been doing. "I really didn't need a 300-yard game to gain confidence. I just want to run this offense and allow it to work."

As for the reception he will likely receive on his old home field, McBrien said, "It will be crazy. It will be a different atmosphere. They've got great fans. I'm sure they won't boo me. Yeah, right."

Maryland is counting on its defense to take the crowd out of the game and to control Cobourne, although the Terps also must account for the running of quarterback Rasheed Marshall and backup running back Quincy Wilson. Cobourne and Wilson each gained more than 200 yards in a rout over East Carolina last week.

"I'm trying to get this team to understand what it's capable of and where it's going to be one day. They have their ups and downs, but I like their effort," Friedgen said. "I don't think this is a do-or-die situation, but it's going to be a new experience, hopefully one we'll gain confidence from."

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