In opener, Huskies home in on Terps

`Protect This House' ad irks N. Illinois, which aims for another win over UM

College Football

September 04, 2004|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - When Ralph Friedgen agreed to appear in an Under Armour commercial this summer as part of the company's "Protect This House" campaign, it represented a significant moment for Maryland's football program. The Terps, and Friedgen, were suddenly on television sets in places as far away as Texas, Oregon and Arizona.

Officially, it wasn't the Terps, but that was only true in the technical sense. To comply with NCAA rules, Maryland was never mentioned, and the players in the spot were just actors. But the red and white jerseys, and the red-faced coach belting out a motivational locker room sermon, left no doubt as who it was supposed to be. For potential recruits and fans, the message was clear. Maryland, a program with 31 wins in the past three years, had now gone national.

In DeKalb, Ill., a small town surrounded by cornfields, they saw the ad, too. And for Northern Illinois linebacker Brian Atkinson the message was very different, but in his eyes, just as clear.

"It's entertainment, but I looked at it like they were speaking to us," Atkinson said. "They say they don't lose in their house. Well, that made me want to practice extra hard to try to bring it to them in their stadium."

Atkinson and Northern Illinois will get that opportunity tonight when the Huskies and No. 22 Terps kick off their 2004 seasons inside Byrd Stadium.

And while much has changed since Northern Illinois upset Maryland, 20-13, in DeKalb a year ago, the reverberation from the Huskies' victory can still be felt today on both sides.

Several Northern Illinois players say they are tired of hearing from Maryland that last year's game was a fluke, and that, had the Terps not been without three starters, the outcome would have been different.

Maryland players claim they've never said such a thing but do admit to overlooking the Huskies. Regardless of what is fact and what is conjecture, the emotions of two good football programs have been simmering for months in anticipation of this game.

"They said it was a fluke," Atkinson said. "Well, the better team is going to come out on top."

"A lot of times if you beat someone once, they're going to call it a fluke," said Huskies wide receiver Dan Sheldon, who caught the winning touchdown in overtime against Maryland last season. "But if you beat them a second time, it's pretty hard to call it a fluke."

If Northern Illinois sounds confident, it's because the Huskies are confident, and deservedly so.

Beating Maryland was a watershed moment for the up-and-coming program, and the Huskies put the Mid-American Conference on the national radar by following it up with wins over Iowa State and Alabama. Though their 10-2 record didn't result in a bowl invitation, it proved there was plenty of good football being played outside the major conferences.

Friedgen says he knew that a year ago, but he couldn't seem to convince some of his players.

"We went in there as a senior team that had just beaten Tennessee [in the Peach Bowl in 2002] and we were a little full of ourselves," Friedgen said. "They're a very good team. I have a lot of respect for their program. I said that to [the media] last year, and you all laughed at me."

Either way, the margin between the two teams was razor thin. Maryland needed to block a field-goal try to send the game into overtime, and Northern Illinois won on a wacky interception that bounced off the leg of cornerback Rob Lee and into the hands of safety Randy Drew.

"They were one of the most physical football teams I've ever seen," said Northern Illinois coach Joe Novak. "That win gave us confidence and brought tremendous excitement to our program."

Neither team will catch the other by surprise this time, and Northern Illinois says it's eager to experience Byrd Stadium, where Maryland is 19-1 under Friedgen.

"I love playing in away stadiums," said Huskies quarterback Josh Haldi. "I take great joy in getting the crowd quieted. It's a better feeling going to away stadiums and coming out with a victory."

Friedgen isn't worried about his team's intensity this year, just its youth. Sophomore Joel Statham will start his first game at quarterback, and the secondary, linebacker corps and defensive and offensive lines break in new starters as well.

There's no danger, however, of the team overlooking the Huskies this time. Asked this week if he might hold starting safety Chris Kelley out of the game as a "precaution" after Kelley missed practice with a minor knee sprain, Friedgen scoffed at the idea that Maryland has such a luxury.

"A precaution? A precaution for what?" he said. "We're going to be in the fight of our lives."

Maryland tonight

Matchup: Northern Illinois vs. No. 22 Maryland in season opener for both schools

Site: Byrd Stadium, College Park

Time: 6

Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)

Line: Maryland by 14 1/2

Today's game

Maryland (0-0) vs. Northern Illinois (0-0)

Site: Byrd Stadium, College Park

Time: 6 p.m.

Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)

Line: Maryland by 14 1/2

Series: Tied 1-1

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