By Marc Carig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 29, 2007
When he was a boy, Maryland wide receiver Danny Oquendo spent plenty of Saturday afternoons at Rutgers Stadium, where he regularly witnessed the Scarlet Knights live up to their well-earned reputation as college football's eternal punch line.
"I used to go with a few of my friends who were my age, and we used to run around the whole stadium, from the upper tier to the lower tier, running wherever we wanted," Oquendo said earlier this week. "There was nobody there . . . a lot of people dressed up like bleachers."
By simply showing up, Oquendo was in the minority. Terrapins running back and fellow New Jersey native Lance Ball didn't bother; neither did Rutgers quarterback Mike Teel, though they both grew up a short drive from campus. Even in Oquendo's case, he had to be there. His uncle, Walter King, played wide receiver for Rutgers from 1996 to 2000, a span in which the Scarlet Knights went a typical 12-34.
When asked earlier this week to describe the former state of the program that would eventually recruit him, Oquendo said: "I don't even think you could call it a 'state.' They were doing terrible."
That's why a tiny part of Oquendo will be a bit wide-eyed when he returns to his home state today, when the Terrapins face 10th-ranked Rutgers. Scarlet Knights Coach Greg Schiano has engineered a reversal of fortune and put Rutgers on the brink of becoming a Garden State-variety football powerhouse.
"They're really doing unprecedented things with Rutgers's whole program," Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen said. "My hat's off to him and the job he's done. They're a very, very good football team right now, maybe the best we've played."
Maryland's matchup with college football's new darlings comes at a crucial early point of the Terrapins' season. Maryland (2-2) hopes to recover from a stunning loss at Wake Forest, the second game in a brutal stretch that began with national title contender West Virginia and continues today against the Scarlet Knights and Heisman Trophy hopeful Ray Rice.
"It's just my bad luck that I picked two top 10 teams to play as nonconference opponents," Friedgen said.
The Terrapins need a victory to avoid their first three-game losing streak since the 2004 season, when Saturday's game with Rutgers was originally planned.
"We have to improve; we have to get better," said Friedgen, somewhat playing down the significance of today's game. "But I wouldn't say this is make-it-or-break-it time."
The game also carries ramifications with recruiting. Generations of New Jersey's most talented football players fled their home state for greener pastures. The Terrapins' roster boasts 16 players from New Jersey, second only to the 50 from Maryland. But an important part of Schiano's turnaround at Rutgers has been keeping that talent at home.
When Schiano hit the recruiting trail in 2001, he peddled his vision of Rutgers football, one that included bowl trips and packed houses and victories. Both Oquendo and Ball admit that the coach -- a noted recruiter -- nearly convinced them.
"That's made my job a lot tougher," Terrapins defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Dave Sollazzo said of Rutgers' resurgence. "No doubt about that."
Of course, the Terrapins didn't bank on all of this when the game with Rutgers was booked.
Maryland Athletic Director Debbie Yow said the art of piecing together a football team's schedule is about the search for balance. And in January 1995, the sub-.500 Terrapins were in need of a somewhat comparable nonconference foe.
That's where Rutgers came into play. Since making history on Nov. 6, 1869, by beating Princeton in the first college football game ever played, the Scarlet Knights spent the next 125 years establishing a standard of futility. Even a respite from mediocrity -- the 1976 Scarlet Knights went 11-0 -- wasn't enough to gain a bowl invite because that season's schedule was loaded with cupcakes.
Considering that history, scheduling a pair of nonconference games against Rutgers was once the safest wager in college football.
"To complain about their level of success, as far as I'm concerned, would be to whine," Yow said. "And Terps aren't whiners. So we're going to go play the game and expect the best. I have great respect for what they've done. It's been an amazing turnaround."