Now a starter, Statham goes back to beginning

QB has come long way since his debut last year in loss to Georgia Tech

October 09, 2004|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - On a humid night in Georgia 11 1/2 months ago, Joel Statham buckled his chin strap and took a deep breath. A national TV audience watched him jog onto the field in front of 51,524 fans - most of them hostile - and attempt to lead Maryland's football team to victory against Georgia Tech.

The odds were not in Statham's favor. He had begun the week as the Terps' third-string quarterback, and had seen little action in practice. But a confluence of events (including a concussion by starter Scott McBrien) had suddenly thrust him into this maelstrom, and now the freshman was being asked to run an offense he had limited knowledge of, on the road, against a team that was blitzing across the line of scrimmage every play.

And yet, somehow, despite all that, he nearly pulled it off.

It's fitting to look back at that night as Maryland (3-1, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) faces Georgia Tech (2-2, 1-2) again today, this time at home, and see how far Statham has come. He was far from perfect against the Yellow Jackets - completing 10 of 22 passes for 110 yards while turning the ball over twice in two quarters - but he also showed some guts in the Terps' 7-3 loss last season. He stood tall in the pocket despite tremendous physical and mental pressure, and made enough plays to give Maryland the lead going into the fourth quarter.

"That was about as difficult a situation as you can have," said Maryland offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe. "The opposing defensive coordinator is looking at that, and he's licking his chops. Joel had people in his face every play. But the thing that impresses me was that I didn't see Joel panic at all. He hung in there and took a lot of hits and really made a lot of difficult throws."

Statham still makes mistakes - he's third in the league with seven interceptions through four games - but he still makes plays, some of them great. Despite having to endure some criticism during Maryland's 3-1 start, Statham leads the ACC in passing yards (226.8 per game), total offense (248.8) and is tied for the league lead with seven touchdown passes.

"Watching the tape of that [Georgia Tech] game now, it's amazing how much improvement there is in Joel," Taaffe said. "He's grown a lot from that. I think that experience helped him. At least now you can say he's played against a team before. He's played against a lot of these players."

Some of Statham's teammates have been stewing over the team's play against the Yellow Jackets last season.

"It was ugly," said senior center Kyle Schmitt. "They came after us. Once Joel was in there, it was kind of like sharks smelling blood. We didn't play real good up front [on the line], either. We were [blocking] high and tentative, and it was just ugly."

A day before the game, when coach Ralph Friedgen suspended backup quarterback Orlando Evans for breaking team rules, Taaffe asked Statham to write down all the passing plays he felt comfortable running. Statham came up with 10.

One of them, however, was a play that required all four wide receivers to run hard vertical routes up the field. Taaffe called it in the third quarter, and on third-and-12, Statham zipped a pass to Steve Suter, who made an acrobatic catch for a 32-yard gain, putting Maryland in position for Nick Novak's 35-yard field goal.

This year, Georgia Tech comes into the game with quarterback questions. Reggie Ball - who threw for the game's only touchdown last year as a freshman - has struggled as a sophomore, throwing eight interceptions, including six in the past two games.

"I think it's important to have patience with a young quarterback," said Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey, who has hinted that he may rotate quarterbacks this week. "But you're looking for consistency. You have a pattern of inconsistency, then you have to decide at what point it becomes a major problem."

Georgia Tech always will be a special week for Friedgen, who spent eight years in Atlanta as an offensive coordinator. "I'll have friends there for the rest of my life," Friedgen said this week.

And while Friedgen is quick to play down the emotions this matchup stirs, his players say they know it has extra meaning for their coach.

"This is a big game for him," Schmitt said. "He doesn't say it much, but one thing he does tell us is that Georgia Tech is not a team that's going to quit. Some of those older guys were there when Coach Friedgen was there, and I know he wants it pretty bad."

Maryland today

Matchup: Georgia Tech (2-2, 1-2) vs. No. 23 Maryland (3-1, 1-0)

Site: Byrd Stadium, College Park

Time: 3:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 2, 7/WBAL (1090 AM)

Line: Maryland by 12 1/2

Today's game

No. 23 Maryland (3-1, 1-0) vs. Ga. Tech (2-2, 1-2)

Site: Byrd Stadium, College Park

Time: 3:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 2, 7/WBAL (1090 AM)

Line: Maryland by 12 1/2

Series: Georgia Tech leads 11-5

Last meeting: Georgia Tech defeated Maryland, 7-3, last year in Atlanta.

Maryland offense vs. Georgia Tech defense: The Yellow Jackets are extremely quick, relying on stunts and positioning to frustrate offenses. A year ago, they held Maryland to 96 yards rushing. Tight end Vernon Davis is quickly developing into one of quarterback Joel Statham's favorite targets. Maryland's running game could get even better this week with the addition of freshman Keon Lattimore, who missed five weeks after separating his shoulder in preseason.

Maryland defense vs. Georgia Tech offense: P.J. Daniels led the ACC in rushing last season, and is leading the league again this year (108 yards per game), but he missed last week's loss to Miami with a thigh injury. Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey says Daniels will play, but won't be 100 percent. Maryland's defense is sixth in the ACC, giving up 305 yards per game, but linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, defensive end Shawne Merriman and safety Chris Kelley have played as well as anyone in the league.

- Kevin Van Valkenburg

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