By Marc Carig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 14, 2006
Since camp opened last month, Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen has said that this is the deepest team he has had since arriving in College Park in 2001 and that, in essence, lack of talent isn't the problem.
What has been lacking the past two seasons, Friedgen said, is the simple ingredient that powered the Terrapins to three consecutive seasons (2001-03) with at least 10 wins. It's the same ingredient that has No. 5 West Virginia believing it can win a national championship.
"They've got an aura about them, a belief in themselves," Friedgen said about the Mountaineers. "That's where we'd like to be."
The regional rivals meet tonight in what could be a season-shaping game for Maryland. The Terrapins enter Mountaineer Field as prohibitive underdogs against a team that has grown more confident as the spotlight has intensified. For West Virginia, the Terrapins represent another winnable game on a schedule that looks favorable for a championship run.
But for the Terrapins, an upset under the lights could bring back some of that elusive confidence.
"As players, going into a game of this magnitude, it doesn't get bigger than this," Terrapins cornerback Josh Wilson said. "If we can go on ESPN Thursday night football against a top five school and play a hell of a game, what can't you do? This would mean a lot."
Maryland has big matchups against Florida State, Clemson and Miami during its ACC schedule, but none of those can compare with the potential boost the Terrapins could get by pulling out a victory over the Mountaineers.
"I think a season can be made or broken early in the year," linebacker Erin Henderson said. "This game helps a lot if we win it and hurts us a lot if we don't."
Recent history underscores the importance of tonight's matchup.
When the two teams met last year, the Mountaineers faced questions about their legitimacy. Star running back Steve Slaton was still mired in the middle of Coach Rich Rodriguez's depth chart. Quarterback Pat White was a mere backup, and fullback Owen Schmitt had just six carries.
Those three players, who recently appeared together on the cover of Sports Illustrated, have since become the frontmen of a dangerous offense that showed its punch in West Virginia's victory over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.
"We're feeling very confident," said Slaton, who has rushed for 308 yards during West Virginia's 2-0 start. "The whole team feels we've picked up where we left off last year."
Two-thirds of the Mountaineers' standout triumvirate was discovered during last year's 31-19 victory at Byrd Stadium. White came off the bench in the fourth quarter to help the Mountaineers fight off a Terrapins rally. He eventually won the starting job permanently.
"That guy was a beast," Wilson said of White. "I was wondering why he didn't start then."
Meantime, Schmitt led the Mountaineers with 80 yards rushing.
"That game brought a little confidence," said Schmitt, who played at Fairfax High. "I thought, 'I can actually play a little bit at this level.' "
While the pieces started coming together for West Virginia, the Terrapins suffered another confidence-shattering near miss in what became a 5-6 season.
Quarterback Sam Hollenbach personified the best and worst of the Terrapins, rallying the team from a 15-point deficit before fumbling to end any hopes of a comeback late in the fourth quarter.
"You often wonder what would have happened had we gone on to win that football game," Friedgen said. "Maybe the momentum would have changed the confidence level."
Friedgen saw firsthand the value of pulling off a big victory during his first season in College Park, when the Terrapins beat Georgia Tech in what became a springboard for a program that had grown accustomed to losing.
That Maryland team, which didn't have a player who knew the feeling of a winning season, had resolved to reach its modest goal of six victories, and in that game, the Terrapins stopped a late Georgia Tech drive in overtime to win for the sixth time that season.
"That was a defining moment for that team," Friedgen said. "How we perceived ourselves was totally different."
Maryland went on to post the first of three straight 10-win seasons.
The Terrapins find themselves again in need of a confidence boost, and tonight's game, on a national stage, could provide a rare opportunity.
After going 2-0 with unspectacular victories over William & Mary and Middle Tennessee, Friedgen described his team as "playing on eggshells."
"When I talk about playing on eggshells, it's a confidence thing," he said. "When you're tentative, you just worry about making mistakes and you can't play that way."
This season, the Terrapins boast a solid running attack in Keon Lattimore, Lance Ball and Josh Allen. The offensive line is perhaps the best of the Friedgen era, and Hollenbach is showing signs of maturity. They are among the primary reasons that Friedgen maintains that things will change in College Park -- that the moment his team can finally gain some confidence could be near.
"I don't know when that moment is going to come for this team," Friedgen said. "But they've got to have that moment, and they've got to win it."