Terps out to wreck Tech, then build on it

UM hopes victory would set tone for rest of year, as it did during run in '01

October 17, 2002|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - The Maryland Terrapins have six games, four victories and a three-game winning streak behind them, a whole new season in front of them, and it starts with a much-anticipated exercise on a familiar stage.

When Georgia Tech rolls into Byrd Stadium before an expected sellout crowd tonight, the Terps will face an opponent that reminds Maryland of itself. And while playing the first of seven consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference opponents, the Terps are wondering if tonight's result will set the tone for the rest of the fall once again.

As much as players and coaches typically downplay the importance of midseason games, it's hard to ignore the historical significance of this meeting. A year ago, the Terps were upstarts on the road under first-year coach Ralph Friedgen, who returned to his former workplace, where Maryland staged a dramatic late comeback before upsetting the Yellow Jackets in overtime, 20-17.

Maryland went on to win the ACC and earn an Orange Bowl berth after its defense and special teams, especially kicker Nick Novak, pushed them past Georgia Tech.

A year later, the Terps (4-2, 0-1) are younger, are getting along without their top running back and growing up fast with a defense and a special teams unit that, together, rank among the best in the conference. And after disposing of lightweights like Akron, Eastern Michigan and Wofford before destroying West Virginia on the road, it's time to dance with the Ramblin' Wreck on another Thursday night before a national television audience.

"I think a lot about the way last year's game kind of jump-started our season. We're sort of in the same position again," sophomore outside linebacker Jamahl Cochran said. "All of these games are so important now. Any loss could take us out of the ACC [race]. We can really get better and get the ball rolling."

Added middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, alluding to the Terps' 1-2 start after losses to Notre Dame and Florida State: "The season started kind of wishy-washy for us. The best is yet to come. We've got a good stretch run in us."

What a high-profile way to get it started. For the fifth time since 1995, Maryland and Georgia Tech (4-2, 1-2) will play on Thursday night on ESPN, and this year each team is coming off a bye week. For the second straight year, Friedgen will try to beat his old school, this time with a team that looks strikingly similar to his.

The Terps have leaned heavily on their defense and special teams, which have helped Maryland win the field-position game and cover for an offense that has moved forward in incremental steps. Without injured tailback Bruce Perry all season, the Terps have found productive replacements in senior Chris Downs and freshman Josh Allen, while quarterback Scott McBrien is gradually getting a handle on the passing game and getting more comfortable with a group of emerging receivers.

Like Maryland, Georgia Tech is finding its way with a new quarterback in A.J. Suggs, who has averaged a modest 155 passing yards. Like Maryland, the Yellow Jackets are trying to contend after losing their tailback to an injury. But unlike Perry, who could return to action next week at Duke, Georgia Tech's Tony Hollings, a converted safety, is out for the year after suffering a knee injury last month.

Hollings had averaged 6.9 yards per carry and rushed for 11 touchdowns before going down, leaving the job primarily to freshman Ajenavi Eziemefe.

As for its strength, defense speaks loudest at Tech, where the linebacker trio of senior Recardo Wimbush and juniors Daryl Smith and Keyaron Fox - who have played together for three years - lead a unit that is tops in the ACC in points allowed (97), with the Terps just behind (101).

Something has to give.

"I think the teams are evenly matched up. I'm sure it will be knock-down, drag-out. I know their players, and I know they'll come in here looking for revenge from last year," Friedgen said.

"Obviously, every game from here on out is going to be very big for the success of our season. The fact that this is an ACC game looms large. I don't think it's do-or-die, but it's a feather in our cap if we get this one. It sets up a lot of other things."

It will be interesting to see how the Terps handle Georgia Tech's front seven with an offensive line that sports a makeshift look for the first time. With right tackle Matt Crawford likely out while recovering from an illness, three players - center Todd Wike, left guard C.J. Brooks and left tackle Eric Dumas - are moving to different positions, while sophomore Kyle Schmitt makes his second start at center.

As for Georgia Tech's defense, the loss of All-America defensive end Greg Gathers could severely hinder the Yellow Jackets' pass rush. Gathers played three games before going down with a season-ending kidney disorder.

"I think it will come down to the wire," said first-year Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey. "I think if you put too much importance on this game and you win, what about next week? And if you lose this game and win the rest of them, nobody is going to remember the game anyway."

NOTE: The Terps' Oct. 26 game at Duke will begin at 1 p.m. The game won't be televised.

Terps tonight

Opponent:Georgia Tech

Time:7:45

Site:Byrd Stadium, College Park

TV/Radio:ESPN/WBAL (1090 AM)

Line:Maryland by 1 1/2

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