Look West for the Stars

By Mike Wise
Friday, September 14, 2007

For much of two quarters, it seemed plausible. College Park was howling. The No. 4 team in the nation and its shell-game offense, despite being spotted a touchdown, wasn't fooling anyone, least of all the Terrapins linemen.

And as the mighty Mountaineers and their supreme confidence wobbled, nothing resembled the defenseless mauling last year in Morgantown. After 30 minutes, Maryland-West Virginia was suddenly about genuine belief rather than an eyesore of a rout.

Somewhere in the third quarter, though, drama died in Couch Bowl XLVI. After two neighboring state universities well-versed in postgame pyromania were done competing for yards as well as recruits, Byrd Stadium's scoreboard summed up a familiar reality: Rich Rodriguez's team still has too many playmakers for Ralph Friedgen's squad to handle. Seven years after they both returned to coach their alma matters, it's Rich 4 and Ralph 4. But remembering when Maryland last won in 2003 requires the recollection of a fifth-year senior.

Does last night's 31-14 West Virginia victory mean the gap between the programs has further widened? No. If anything, Friedgen's players acquitted themselves well enough to make Maryland matter through the next three weeks of quality opponents.

Given how well the Terps ran the ball early, the way they clocked and stopped the Mountaineers' two Heisman hopefuls, Patrick White and Steve Slaton, when it mattered, Wake Forest, Rutgers and Georgia Tech need to be prepared for a scrap.

Maryland was better against the Mountaineers, but still not good enough.

The sheer amount of West Virginia weaponry -- of speed and precise execution -- just wore down and then ran past a very physical and improved Terps defense.

"Any little seam they got, they flew out of it like rockets," Maryland linebacker Moise Fokou said.

Friedgen beat himself up afterward for his conservative play-calling, the idea being to run the ball and therefore keep the Mountaineers' fuel-injected offense off the field. He obviously saw Louisville beat West Virginia last year in a shootout, not a scrum.

But in the star-wars tally, West Virginia had three -- White, Slaton and Noel Devine -- and the Terps had nothing but Keon Lattimore putting his head down and Jordan Steffy trying to find a rhythm before he ran out of time. Darrius Heyward-Bey, a supernova wideout in waiting, had but three catches.

Before its final touchdown drive, Maryland had one play resulting in more than 20 yards. West Virginia had nine, spread out among four players. The game was over when Devine, the latest hologram of a running back to run the spread option, romped 76 yards to put West Virginia within a yard of a three-touchdown lead.

It says something when Maryland gives up 154 yards rushing by halftime and it's viewed as a success. It says how polished Rodriguez's players run the spread option and how familiar the sight of White and Slaton dusting the Terps has become.

Friedgen was convinced the 45-24 rout the Terps suffered last year in Morgantown actually gave him a clue as to how resilient his team would become. Down 28-0 in a humiliating first quarter, they regrouped at halftime and outscored West Virginia in the final two quarters. A surreal comeback in Charlottesville and five riveting wins later, Maryland was bowl-bound for the first time in three years.

But voters had a hard time shaking that Thursday night national-television meltdown. The Terps weren't ranked until after beating Clemson in early November. With no other college football viewing options, how Maryland fell apart on ESPN against West Virginia early is what people outside greater Washington remembered about Friedgen's program. Don't think potential five-star recruits weren't watching, either.

If any of those same players watched last night, they saw Friedgen's team reinvigorated, holding its own against a bona fide national title contender. West Virginia had a first and goal from the Maryland 2 and could not come away with points. Take away the fumbled snap on the first play from scrimmage, and the Terps were successfully trading punches with the Mountaineers. "I thought, 'Here we go again,' " Friedgen said, referring to the fumble. "But our kids didn't do that."

Defensive end Jeremy Navarre and Erin Henderson were hurting people. Steffy couldn't miss early, connecting on his first five passes. The way in which the Terps marched down the field 4 minutes 22 seconds after West Virginia took a gift fumble and scored gave the impression that the Mountaineers were in for a decent fight.

The stadium was rocking those first two quarters: the students in their black T-shirts, the boosters in their candy-apple red and an almost-in-shock athletic department, the same people who buried their heads in Morgantown a year ago and shuffled back to College Park in a state of depression.

There was no such crestfallen feeling this year. But there was another West Virginia victory by more than two touchdowns. And just when you thought the Terps had seen the last of players such as Slaton and White, both seniors, along comes some freshman to put the game away with a demoralizing run out of that same damn spread option.

Lucky for Friedgen, Devine and his team aren't on Maryland's schedule for the next two seasons.

Do the Terps come away feeling good they stayed with West Virginia early and didn't buckle until late? Or is this looked back upon as a referendum on a rivalry tilting in the Mountaineers' favor four years running?

Either way, a year later, Maryland gave its fans a few good reasons to get off the couch against West Virginia -- but still not enough to sprinkle lighter fluid on it.

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