By Marc Carig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
The West Virginia highlight film shows a tall guy wearing a No. 14 jersey running for his life, seconds before getting smashed by a defender. A few seconds later, a similar scene pops up again, this time with players scurrying for a loose football.
The images came from Maryland's 31-19 loss to the Mountaineers last season, a game Terrapins quarterback Sam Hollenbach helped decide. Hollenbach first rallied his team from a 15-point deficit to within two, but late in the fourth quarter, he fumbled away Maryland's final comeback hopes.
As the season unfolded, those images endured.
The Mountaineers went on to a breakout season, upending Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. The Terrapins endured a maze of opportunities lost, stumbling to a second straight 5-6 season partly because of Hollenbach's inability to eliminate turnovers.
When the two regional rivals meet again tomorrow night, a key question surrounding the Terrapins' season will be answered when Hollenbach leads his team into what promises to be a hostile environment against the No. 5 Mountaineers.
Just how far has the quarterback come?
"It's pretty much a culmination of everything," Hollenbach said. "This is kind of like what Coach Friedgen described as a final exam. We really need to be prepared for it. That's kind of how I look at it, too. Personally, going into this game, this is where leadership needs to really show itself."
For Hollenbach, tomorrow's game is a chance to remake his image after a tumultuous season during which he threw 15 interceptions and played through a painful shoulder injury. His decision-making came under such scrutiny that Friedgen opened competition for the starting job.
Nevertheless, Hollenbach prevailed, securing the starting job even before fall camp opened. He earned praise from coaches for his improvement in reading routes and running the offense.
His hard work during the offseason left an impact on his coach.
"I'm rooting for him," Friedgen said of Hollenbach during camp.
Two games into this season, Hollenbach has yet to throw a touchdown pass. But most important, he hasn't thrown an interception, going an efficient 20 of 30 for 292 yards while leading a conservative attack.
Friedgen said a strong performance by Hollenbach in tomorrow's game could provide a critical boost in confidence.
"It think it would be very big for him," Friedgen said.
Friedgen credits Hollenbach for improving at some of the small details of the position, such as helping to bolster the running attack by making good reads at the line of scrimmage.
Friedgen said Hollenbach showed signs of maturity during last Saturday's victory over Middle Tennessee, when on a crucial third down, he chose to attempt a short pass to tight end Joey Haynos. The pass was broken up, and Hollenbach returned to the sideline angry.
"He got disappointed," Friedgen said. "I said, 'You did the right thing. You threw the ball where only that guy could catch it.' I would rather have him have done that than to try to make a play and throw it up for four guys."
Hollenbach said the transition has been mental as well. Last season, he admitted to being worried about statistics. This year, Hollenbach said the focus has been on simply doing what it takes to win.
"The experience was really the big thing," Hollenbach said. "I was thinking about it earlier. I would much rather have a game Thursday where I have 100 yards passing but throw for a good third-down percentage than throw for 300 yards and don't get the third-down percentage. That's kind of what happened last year."
While Hollenbach managed to pass for 291 yards against the Mountaineers last season, including a 73-yard touchdown strike to Vernon Davis, he guided an offense that converted just 2 of 13 third downs.
That stat may loom large again tomorrow, especially if the offense is successful in keeping the ball away from the explosive West Virginia offense.
For all his improvement, Hollenbach realizes there is room for improvement in other areas.
During the Terrapins' first two games, Hollenbach missed open receivers downfield, remembering one instance during the season opener against William & Mary when wide receiver Danny Oquendo was open for what would have been a touchdown.
He has spent the last week cramming for the game, watching hours of game film in his dorm room, in hopes eliminating those mistakes.
If all goes well, Hollenbach could leave Morgantown with an entirely new image of himself.
"The last thing I want to do is leave something out preparation-wise," Hollenbach said. "I want to make sure that I'm as focused and as ready as I can be. Right now, the pressure's on. Everything else is on hold."