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Mike Wise

Terrapins' Out-of-State Quarterback

By Mike Wise
Friday, September 17, 2004; Page D01

First things first: The last name of Maryland's starting quarterback is pronounced "STATE-um," the way it rolls off tongues in slow-drip Georgia towns such as Chatsworth, home of Joel Statham.

It's not "STAY-thum," like scholarly folk and certain Division I football coaches think.

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"What, I haven't got it wrong all season," Ralph Friedgen pleaded in his office on Wednesday afternoon. "It's STATE-um. I just used to call him STAY-thum because the guy who helped me recruit him kept calling him that."

Friedgen gets a pass, especially after Rich Parson, one of Statham's wide receivers, recently referred to him as "Joel Strantham."

"I get a lot of that -- from teachers, coaches, everybody," Statham said. "Coach Friedgen always said it wrong. But I been kind of scared to say somethin' to him about it."

No worry. By late Saturday afternoon, the pronunciation won't be a problem for most of sporting America. Statham leads No. 23 Maryland into one of college football's true lion dens Saturday: Mountaineer Field in Morgantown, W. Va., where the nation's seventh-ranked team wants reparations for that 41-7 Gator Bowl whupping in January, not to mention three years of futility against the Terrapins.

Mostly, the Mountaineers and their brethren want Statham crumpled on the ground, left in a crying heap of a blowout loss.

Going back to Jerry West, West Virginia is a state with no pro team and not much else in life to do other than fish, hunt, root for the Mountaineers and burn your couch if they win. Actually, that's a cheap shot and not wholly representative of who West Virginia football fans are.

They also chuck whiskey bottles and batteries.

Two years ago in Morgantown, Shawne Merriman, Statham's teammate and Maryland's junior defensive end, heard a loud crack upside his helmet.

"Nine-volt battery, thrown from the stands," Merriman said. "I was only 18 then. The language, the craziness. You see things like that at that age, you're just . . . shocked."

Six years ago during a Maryland football game at West Virginia, the head referee took the microphone and asked that fans stop throwing golf balls and whiskey bottles onto the field of play.

No one suffered abrasions, but, ah, that old college try.

Waves of students saluting the Terrapins bus with their middle fingers on its way into town, then shaking the vehicle on its way out.

This is the part they edit out of ESPN's "GameDay," the part a 20-year-old redshirt sophomore will have to deal with at Mountaineer Field.

Friedgen's incredible success -- all the points, gadgetry and 33 wins the past three-plus seasons -- have earned him the label of an offensive guru. But the coach knows as well as anyone: After all the dissected film, after your defensive line coach goes hoarse yelling in practice, winning on the road boils down to one essential:

Can your young kid handle the madness of a Saturday afternoon in a visiting stadium?

Statham, 20, thick-necked and muscular but still very young and impressionable, knows this is his test as much as his team's. Backed up, a few feet from your own end zone, surrounded by noise and taunts in only your third start. Maybe a little rattled?

"I'm sure I will be, but I just have to learn to grow up and cope with it," Statham said, earnestly. "Actually, it'll probably be a little bit like back home. Everybody goin' crazy. Bunch of hicks and southern drawls. I'm used to that."

Apropos, huh? The kid who starred at Murray County High in Chatsworth, Ga., ends up in another backwoods field, with little more than a gun of a right arm and his nimble legs to carry his team to victory.

All week at practice, Friedgen has been piping in crowd noise and -- you've got to love this -- John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads" (Almost Heaven, West Virginia. Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River).

He is preparing Statham and the Terps for Almost Hell.

West Virginia has not just been beaten by Maryland the past four meetings; the Mountaineers have been pile-driven into near submission. Since Rich Rodriguez took over for Don Nehlen, he can't beat Friedgen. Last season alone, Maryland won twice by a combined score of 75-14. Accordingly, these people want payback.

Florida-Tennessee and LSU-Auburn are mammoth games this weekend. But Maryland-West Virginia may be the most defining game of the college football season to date. West Virginia wins and the Mountaineers, who play in the beleaguered Big East, are on track to go unbeaten, off to perhaps the national championship game in three months. Maryland wins, and the Terrapins knock off their first top 10 team under Friedgen.

Friedgen's team wins and Gary Williams is going to have an identity crisis. He'll have to start Midnight Madness at 10:30, anything to keep the focus on his hoopsters. Someone mentioned there were nine television camera crews at Friedgen's practice the other day, and remarkably not one of them got lost on the way to Joe Gibbs's 83rd news conference since the great coach pushed the rock aside and returned.

Big-time college football. In the D.C. area. Who knew?

Friedgen once helped develop Boomer Esiason, Stan Gelbaugh and Frank Reich while an assistant at Maryland under Bobby Ross. Statham may have to win a few more huge games to gain the trust Friedgen had in those 10-year NFL veterans. But he is growing quickly. His four-turnover opener against Northern Illinois looked like an aberration after he threw for 268 yards and two touchdowns against Temple last week. Even in practice, his spirals are tight, high-arching things of beauty.

"I just can see the difference in his confidence," Friedgen said of Statham this week.

If Statham can handle the madness of Mountaineer Field, then Maryland has a shot at Clemson on Oct. 23, at Virginia two weeks later and at Virginia Tech on Nov. 18. Death Valley, Charlottesville and Blacksburg in that order -- with a home date against Florida State in the middle. That 26-day span will decide the Terrapins' season.

On Saturday in Morgantown, their legions find out whether a redshirt sophomore has the grit and the gift, whether Maryland ends a bowl-bound 9-2 or an on-the-cusp 6-5, whether Friedgen's monster keeps growing or his young team finally deals with the reality of its youth.

Mostly, it finds out about how far the kid from Chatsworth can carry them -- whether Statham can beat 'em.


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