Terps slip by N. Illinois, 23-20

UM overcomes jitters, 4 turnovers to turn back Huskies in home opener

QB Statham: 3 early fumbles

September 05, 2004|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - A year ago, when Northern Illinois took Maryland's best punch and refused to go down, the Terps panicked.

Last night, when the stubborn Huskies did it again, Maryland chose to persevere.

Despite four turnovers, a handful of penalties and an infinite supply of first-game jitters, the 22nd-ranked Terps managed to make just enough plays to defeat Northern Illinois, 23-20, before 51,830 at Byrd Stadium.

The win provided a measure of redemption for Maryland, which came into last season ranked 15th, but was stunned by the Huskies, 20-13, in the season opener in DeKalb, Ill.

"That was a tough football game," said Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen. "I knew we were going to make some mistakes, and we certainly did, but we also made some plays. I looked around on our sideline and it was a very different scenario than last year. Last year, there was a little bit of panic, but this year [I saw] determination."

Maryland admitted to underestimating the Huskies in 2003, and vowed not to make the same mistake. The Terps did, however, make things as interesting as possible last night. Offensive mistakes left the game in doubt until the final drive, and sophomore quarterback Joel Statham had a rocky first career start.

Statham fumbled four times - three on the Terps' first four possessions, with one resulting in a safety - and threw a second-quarter interception. He finished the night 12-for-22 for 169 yards.

"I think it was just the jitters," Statham said. "As the game went on, I was able to get a little more comfortable."

"Joel's not the kind of guy to get down and mope on the sidelines," said Maryland center Kyle Schmitt. "He just laughs it off. At one point, he looked at me and said, `Well, things can't get any worse.' "

Maryland's defense, running game and kicking game were good enough to bail out the Terps. Josh Allen and Sam Maldonado combined for 186 yards rushing and two touchdowns, and Nick Novak kicked three field goals of more than 30 yards.

That was just enough to hold off a Northern Illinois team that had a chance to win despite losing starting quarterback Josh Haldi in the first quarter.

"We were very fortunate to win this game," Friedgen said. "You have to give a lot of credit to Northern Illinois. You look at them and they're not that big, but they have a whole lot of fight in them."

Despite the mistakes, it looked like Maryland was about to finish off the Huskies with 5:34 left. The Terps were leading 23-12 and had driven to the Huskies' 5-yard line behind Maldonado's bruising running.

But on a play-action fake, tight end Vernon Davis missed a block, and Statham got nailed while rolling out by linebacker Ken West. The ball popped loose and Huskies linebacker Jason Hawkins scooped it up and went 85 yards for a score. The Huskies were successful on the two-point conversion, pulling them within a field goal.

"It was probably a bad play call on my part, but hindsight is always 20/20," Friedgen said. "If we had gotten any kind of score, even a field goal, we probably would have put the game away."

Instead, the job was left up to Maryland's defense, which made mistakes, but also made big plays. Northern Illinois drove to the Terps' 33, converting a fourth-and-eight in the process, but backup quarterback Phil Horvath's final pass fell incomplete as time expired, giving Maryland its first victory in a season opener since 2001.

"Give our guys credit; they could have packed it in," Friedgen said. "I'm glad we're in better shape than we were last year or we wouldn't have won that game."

In all likelihood, Maryland wouldn't have won without junior linebackers D'Qwell Jackson and Shawne Merriman. Jackson had two interceptions in the first half and Merriman had three tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Merriman also played a part in one of Jackson's interceptions, nailing Horvath as he released the ball.

"I told D'Qwell, `Don't expect anything from me for Christmas, because that was your early Christmas present,' " Merriman said.

Jackson's first interception led to a 9-yard touchdown run by Maldonado, and his second led to a field goal by Novak that put Maryland up 10-2 going into halftime. Novak's kick allowed him to pass Scott Bentley of Florida State (326) for the Atlantic Coast Conference's career record for points.

Had Northern Illinois not put itself in such a big hole, the Huskies might be celebrating a victory over Maryland for the second straight year.

Haldi, who has been nursing a stress fracture in his foot all preseason, tried to give it a go, but Huskies coach Joe Novak took him out after just three plays. Horvath played admirably in his absence, going 19-for-36 for 219 yards, but his two interceptions came when the Terps' offense was reeling, and they changed the momentum of the game.

"I'm really proud of Phil Horvath," Novak said. "That's the first time he's ever played. The young kid went out there and made some plays. I have a lot of respect for what Phil did and a lot of pride."

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