Terps up against different West Virginia

Seven-game win streak after loss to Maryland testament to renewal

College Football

December 29, 2003|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - On the evening of Sept. 20, West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez walked to midfield at Byrd Stadium, shook hands with Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen and then made his way to the visitors' locker room wondering how a season of such promise had gone so bad, so quickly.

"Maryland dominated us from start to finish that day," Rodriguez said.

The 34-7 loss dropped the Mountaineers' record to 1-3 for the year, and there appeared to be no silver lining in the result.

West Virginia's vaunted running game had been barely adequate, and its explosive passing game had been borderline pathetic. To make matters worse, it wasn't about to get any easier. Next up on the schedule was then-No. 2 Miami.

But in 10 days, everything somehow changed. Though West Virginia didn't beat the Hurricanes, falling, 22-20, on a last-minute field goal, the Mountaineers breathed new life into their season.

Seven straight wins later, West Virginia had a share of the Big East title and had earned a rematch with Maryland in the Gator Bowl.

Rodriguez's team will wear the same uniforms Thursday against the Terps, but that's about all it will have in common with the group of young men that walked off the field demoralized in College Park three months ago.

"Everything we did that game [against Maryland], we're doing 100 percent better right now," said West Virginia running back Quincy Wilson.

The Mountaineers didn't get results by making radical changes, though for a few days Rodriguez considered them. Instead, they focused on subtle adjustments to the offensive line.

"We didn't want to say, `Let's abandon ship and start over,' because that doesn't send a very good message to the players," Rodriguez said.

Instead, he put his trust in offensive line coach Rick Trickett, a decorated Marine Corps veteran with more than 30 years experience in coaching.

Trickett and Rodriguez went through the film for the Maryland game frame by frame, and eventually, Trickett convinced his boss that things weren't nearly as bad as they seemed. A better block here, a better cut there and good things could happen.

"It might be the right guard on one play or the center on the next play," Trickett said. "What we were trying to do was OK. We were just getting whipped at the point of attack.

"We were getting three yards when we should have been getting seven. I tried to convince [Rodriguez] we were really close. It wasn't that the scheme wasn't good. We just were not executing."

To fix things, West Virginia reshuffled much of its offensive line. Junior left tackle Jeff Berk moved to right guard. Junior Mike Watson took Berk's place at tackle, and freshman Jeremy Hines took over at center.

In the next three games - against Rutgers, Virginia Tech and Central Florida (all wins) - the Mountaineers averaged 275 yards rushing. When Wilson ran for 208 and four touchdowns in a 52-31 win over Pittsburgh on Nov. 15, it let everyone know West Virginia was for real.

"I think we stopped worrying about the end result and just tried to win the next play," Rodriguez said.

With Wilson ripping off big chunks of yardage on first down, it took a lot of the pressure off quarterback Rasheed Marshall to convert on third-and-long.

Instead, Marshall got a chance to throw downfield when the defense wasn't expecting it, and the difference was considerable. Marshall and Chris Henry hooked up for an 83-yard touchdown against Rutgers, and Marshall hit Travis Garvin for a 93-yard score against Virginia Tech.

West Virginia also has plenty to prove against Maryland. Though Rodriguez and the Mountaineers have gone 17-8 the past two seasons, the Terps have had their number.

In 2002, Maryland jumped out to a 28-0 lead before going on to win, 48-17, in Morgantown, and this year, West Virginia needed a fourth-quarter touchdown by Kay-Jay Harris to avoid being shut out.

"I think Maryland is our biggest rival since coach Rod's been here," Wilson said.

"They've given us the most trouble. We've pretty much competed with and beat everyone else, but Maryland is the only team we haven't conquered.

"We've had some good teams, but we've played them early in the season when we weren't rolling. We kind of catch fire at the end of the season, so I'm glad we have a chance to play them now."

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