For the first time in 25 games under Coach Ron Vanderlinden, Maryland eased into college football's fast lane yesterday. The West Virginia team it beat might be in a bit of a down cycle, but the 33-0 score should make even the strongest preseason doubters take notice.
"This was a big statement . . . that the Maryland Terps are for real," said tailback LaMont Jordan after Maryland improved to 3-0. "People say: 'Well, you beat [very weak] Temple and blew out [Division I-AA] Western Carolina.' This win was big. And very convincing."
It was only the eighth victory since Vanderlinden came to Maryland in 1997. None of the previous wins came against top competition.
Even better, Maryland reversed the embarrassment it suffered against the Mountaineers last season. West Virginia was ahead by 39 midway through the third quarter at home last year. Today, when cornerback Lewis Sanders scooped up a fumble and ran 28 yards on the last play of the third quarter before 33,169 stunned fans at Byrd Stadium, the Terrapins had a 26-0 lead.
Nearly everyone except the pass rushers and punter Sean Starner played exceptionally for Maryland. The offense averaged 6.7 yards on 67 plays and Jordan's career-high 164 rushing yards were six more than his production last week against Western Carolina. Brian Kopka had 31- and 27-yard field goals and kept the Mountaineers in check by sailing most of his kickoffs too deep to be returned.
The Terrapins got four interceptions off quarterback Marc Bulger, who still went over 7,000 passing yards for his career. So dominant were the Terrapins that the starters took most of the fourth quarter off and several thousand fans could get into position to storm the field at game's end.
"I've been very lucky to have been a part of these kinds of turnarounds," Vanderlinden said, "and there's nothing like it. The greatest feeling in the world is when you start to win, because nobody's spoiled. Everyone appreciates what you're doing. There are no ugly wins."
West Virginia (1-2) could have gained control early. But Jay Taylor was wide left on a 44-yard field goal try midway through the first quarter and defensive end Peter Timmins intercepted Bulger's screen pass three minutes later.
"We probably would have had our way," West Virginia Coach Don Nehlen said. "But when you throw an interception on a screen pass you know you're in trouble. . . . Maybe we got all those bad things out in one game. I don't know but that was really a poor performance on our part."
Two plays that did not immediately result in touchdowns helped tilt the game Maryland's way. The first was wide receiver Jermaine Arrington bobbling the ball at least three times on a pass from quarterback Calvin McCall before gaining control and, ultimately, 62 yards to the West Virginia 9. Two plays later, Jordan carried two Mountaineers into the end zone to complete a seven-yard run and Maryland had a 7-0 lead.
"The defender got a hand on it," Arrington said. "I tipped it three or four times [before controlling it, almost in full stride, with his right hand]. I kept saying 'Stay with it. Stay with it.' "
The second critical non-scoring play came with 6 minutes 19 seconds left before halftime, when cornerback Renard Cox stepped in front of Mountaineers flanker Pat Greene, intercepted Bulger's pass at the Maryland 8 and returned it 31 yards. West Virginia had forced Maryland to punt from its end zone--and Starner's effort went just 34 yards.
Jordan's running helped turn that interception into a 10-0 lead on Kopka's 31-yarder. McCall's passing on the next Maryland offensive series ended in Kopka's 27-yarder with 15 seconds left in the first half.
Maryland gained total control during a 64-second stretch at the end of the third period. Jordan and freshman Bruce Perry ran so well that sophomore tight end Eric James was uncovered in the end zone and gathered in McCall's one-yard pass. McCall's run for two points failed and Maryland had a 19-0 lead.
On West Virginia's third play after the kickoff, Bulger's pitch went behind tailback Cooper Rego and Maryland linebacker Aaron Thompson seemed about to smother the ball. That's what Sanders also figured--and trotted over to congratulate his teammate.
However, the ball squirted out of Thompson's grasp and a surprised Sanders fielded it and dashed 28 yards into the end zone. In three games, Sanders also has run back a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown and intercepted three passes. His interception yesterday and the one by free safety Shawn Forte came off passes tipped by West Virginia receivers.
"We want to be [Atlantic Coast Conference] champions," Jordan said. After a bye week, that quest begins Sept. 30 against Georgia Tech in Atlanta.