West Virginia has much to prove vs. young Terps

Revenge, Top 10 ranking are on line for No. 7 hosts

September 18, 2004|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

FOR WEST VIRGINIA, IT IS A CHANCE — They share a border and they share a contentious history, but today, Maryland and West Virginia share the football field for a game that will reveal plenty about both teams.

For West Virginia, it is a chance - and perhaps the only chance this season - for the seventh-ranked Mountaineers to prove they deserve to call themselves a Top 10 team. If the Mountaineers can't beat No. 21 Maryland on their home field in front of 60,000 wild fans, it will be hard to garner much national respect as the season goes on. West Virginia currently doesn't have another ranked team on its schedule.

It's also an opportunity for Mountaineers coach Rich Rodriguez to prove he can beat Ralph Friedgen, something he has been unable to do since both coaches returned to their alma maters in 2001.

"I've done everything but hire a voodoo doctor and a psychiatrist," Rodriguez said this week about his 0-4 record against the Terps. "There's no question it's been on our minds. It's all everybody asked us about over the offseason."

For Maryland, it's a chance to prove that age is irrelevant, and that regardless of the circumstances, the Terps continue to have the Mountaineers' number. Though Maryland is trying to put together its fourth consecutive 10-win season, 49 players on the roster began the year with four years of eligibility. Victories over Northern Illinois and Temple this season look good in the win column, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions about Friedgen's young team.

Can sophomore quarterback Joel Statham handle the pressure of a hostile road environment? Will the Terps' defensive line get pushed around by the Mountaineers' strength and experience? And will Maryland's untested defensive backs rise to the challenge if West Virginia tries to burn them deep?

"I think we'll find out all that [today]," Friedgen said. "A lot of people are talking about their team competing for a national championship, so I know kids on both sides are going to look at this as a big game, and a big opportunity. This game will tell me a lot about our team."

It's been a series filled with rancor and intrigue in recent years, especially after quarterback Scott McBrien transferred from West Virginia to Maryland in 2001 and then led the Terps to three straight victories before graduating last year. Some West Virginia players even suggested this week that part of Maryland's recent dominance could be attributed to rumors that McBrien took the Mountaineers' playbook with him when he left. McBrien's gone, but the series remains contentious.

"It's an experience to go play in that stadium," said middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. "You walk in, and the fans are on you right away. They definitely mean business up there."

Defensive end Shawne Merriman can recall getting drilled in the helmet by a nine-volt battery when Maryland traveled to Morgantown two years ago.

"It's just crazy," Merriman said. "They start yelling at you during warm-ups and they never stop, the entire game."

Injuries and the weather will likely play a much bigger factor than emotions, however. West Virginia running back Kay-Jay Harris, who rushed for 337 yards in the Mountaineers' opener against East Carolina, has been nursing a hamstring injury all week, and is a big question mark. Harris has said he'll play, but recent reports from West Virginia's media have him listed as doubtful. Harris, a 25-year-old senior who played minor league baseball for three years, is a major cog in West Virginia's powerful ground game.

"At that age, you're really a man playing among boys," Friedgen said of Harris. "Not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. ... He's an excellent player."

"I hope he does play," said Maryland defensive end Kevin Eli. "I want their best shot."

Even if Harris does play, Rodriguez has already declared that his team is an underdog this week, despite the high ranking and the fact that the Mountaineers are 6 1/2 -point favorites. Until West Virginia proves it on the field, there is no sense in pretending otherwise.

"They haven't beaten us, so they see themselves that way," said Maryland junior center Kyle Schmitt. "For us, we're going to a place where it's pretty hard to win, so we actually feel like the underdog. Either way, it's not going to matter once we kick off."

Maryland today

Matchup: No. 21 Maryland (2-0) vs. No. 7 West Virginia (2-0)

Site: Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium, Morgantown, W.Va.

Time: Noon

TV/Radio: ESPN2/ WIYY (97.9 FM)

Line: West Virginia by 6 1/2

Today's game

Navy (2-0) vs. Tulsa (0-2)

Site: Skelly Stadium, Tulsa, Okla.

Time: 7 p.m.

Radio: WJFK (1300 AM), WNAV (1430 AM)

Series record: First meeting

Last week: Navy defeated Northeastern, 28-24; Tulsa lost to Oklahoma State, 38-21.

Outlook: Off to a 2-0 start for the first time since 1996, the Midshipmen figure to encounter stern opposition from the only team to improve more than they did last season. Tulsa is winless, but has played at two Big 12 schools. Last week at Oklahoma State, the offense showed signs of coming alive behind senior quarterback James Kilian and a productive tight end combination of Caleb Blankenship and Garrett Mills. The Golden Hurricane boasts more speed than any of Navy's previous opponents. Navy, which has not opened 3-0 in 25 years, will depend on its tough-to-defend triple option quarterbacked by Aaron Polanco that has amassed 601 yards rushing. The Midshipmen have a negative (2.0) ratio, and holding onto the ball will be imperative. - Kent Baker

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