Maryland football players say they aren't overlooking Florida International

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 24, 2010; 11:12 PM

Those who drive to Byrd Stadium on Saturday may hear radio commercials proclaiming that there is no better time for Maryland to welcome winless Florida International. Fans may envision a mismatch because the unfamiliar visiting team won just three games last season in a conference few recognize.

Regardless of outside perception, the Terrapins know this game won't be anything like their 59-point victory over division I-AA Morgan State on Sept. 11. They spent Monday studying how a turnover-hungry defense helped the Golden Panthers build fourth-quarter leads against two potential bowl teams, Texas A&M and Rutgers, the past two weeks.

When a reporter asked about possibly overlooking FIU, linebacker Adrian Moten was so eager to respond he interrupted to say: "We know what we are going against. This team has playmakers. They opened up the gates on Texas A&M. They opened up the gates on Rutgers. They ain't no slouch team. We're not going to be like, 'Oh, this is a Morgan State team.' "

This game will be pivotal for a vulnerable Maryland team. The Terrapins (2-1) will play without arguably their best offensive lineman, left tackle Justin Gilbert, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in last weekend's 31-17 loss to West Virginia. And their two best quarterbacks - starter Jamarr Robinson (sore throwing shoulder) and backup Danny O'Brien (high-ankle sprain) - are hampered by injury.

What's more, Maryland is in dangerous waters considering the Terrapins lost to another Sun Belt Conference team - Middle Tennessee - in each of the past two seasons, including last season's 32-31 loss to the Blue Raiders before a stunned crowd at Byrd Stadium.

"We don't have the right to overlook anyone," wide receiver Torrey Smith said.

Preseason expectations were low for FIU, which was picked sixth in the Sun Belt preseason coaches' poll and was ranked 119th nationally by the Orlando Sentinel. But the Panthers are also a wild card because of two new coordinators under fourth-year coach Mario Cristobal, a former University of Miami offensive lineman.

Several key players, including wide receiver T.Y. Hilton - who Moten believes could play in the ACC - are also back from last year's team, which limped to a 3-9 record. Considering its impressive performance in its two losses this season, an FIU victory Saturday would be considered only a slight upset.

"We wouldn't be surprised, but people would be surprised" if the Panthers won, FIU safety Jonathan Cyprien said. "We're FIU; we have loyal fans, but a lot of people still don't know about us. It would be a shock to some, but not to us."

In its season opener, FIU outgained Rutgers, 371 yards to 172, in total offense and held a 14-13 lead entering the fourth quarter. But five FIU turnovers, two blocked punts and 14 penalties proved too much to overcome in a 19-14 loss.

Last week, the Panthers nearly knocked off Texas A&M before 79,069 at the Aggies' home field. They intercepted Texas A&M on four consecutive possessions, sacked quarterback Jarrod Johnson six times and built a 20-6 lead at the start of the fourth quarter. The Aggies scored on three touchdown drives of at least 59 yards in the fourth and stopped the Panthers four yards short of the end zone in the final 90 seconds for a 27-20 victory.

Mike Sherman, the Texas A&M coach, said he entered the game "real nervous" about FIU's defense because of its athleticism. After facing the defense, Texas A&M running back Christine Michael simply said, "They were everywhere."

FIU center Brad Serini said he could tell the Aggies were a "little shocked" by the Panthers' performance, adding: "That's just how it is. We shocked a lot of people the first two games. We just have to learn how to finish them off."

Finishing opponents has been the focus in FIU's practice all week. Cristobal said his team is hungry to break through and beat a BCS conference team. The Panthers start the season with four straight BCS opponents (they play at Pittsburgh next week), including three on the road, and the Maryland game appears to be the most winnable of the four.

The biggest concern for Maryland is an FIU defense that ranks 12th nationally in sacks per game and sixth in pass efficiency defense. The unit, which has forced eight turnovers in two games, is expected to create at least five turnovers each practice or face conditioning repercussions. Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen said the linebackers and defensive backs are adept at watching a quarterback's eyes and springing to the ball.

"If you have an experienced quarterback, it could work for you," Friedgen said. "If you don't, that's what worries me."

Friedgen said there are no signs his players are taking FIU lightly. The Terrapins practiced well this week, he said, with the exception of Wednesday's sloppy practice. Players want nothing else than to wash the memory of the West Virginia loss from their minds. They know it won't be easy against the Panthers.

Said linebacker Alex Wujciak, "They are definitely better than people think."

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