With lefty quarterback Scott McBrien departed after a highly successful senior season, Maryland football fans flocked to College Park last evening to see, in particular, the youthful signal-caller whom Coach Ralph Friedgen hopes can settle down after some rocky practice outings and lead this season's Terrapins. Joel Statham, a 20-year-old sophomore from Chatsworth, Ga., looked like a bundle of nerves at the outset and made a critical fumble late in the game, although that might not be reason for Terrapins fans to worry too much, not yet anyway. McBrien himself was a longtime work in progress before he finished up with a terrific 2003 season, ending up the most valuable player in the Gator Bowl.
Only midway in his debut as a starter, Statham gave signs of growing into the job. He fumbled three times early, but then appeared to relax in midgame, discovering a reliable target in sophomore tight end Vernon Davis. Yet in the closing minutes of the game, Statham fumbled a fourth time, enabling Northern Illinois linebacker Jason Hawkins to scoop up the ball and rumble 85 yards for a touchdown that brought the Mid-American Conference visitors perilously close to upsetting the Terrapins for a second straight year. Without question, Statham and the Terrapins have much work ahead of them, work they will have to master given the schedule they face.
The Terrapins atoned for last season's disastrous start and won an opener after failing the previous two years. But it wasn't particularly pretty. Size and speed enabled the Terrapins to prevail, but they had to scratch out a 10-2 halftime lead and catch a break -- recovering a fumble by Northern Illinois on the second-half kickoff, setting them up for a touchdown -- before moving on to a 23-20 victory. To the Terrapins, the experience too closely resembled last year's opener, when they lost to this tough team out in Illinois. Statham finished with 12 completions in 22 attempts for 169 yards. He was intercepted once, along with the fumbles. Despite the youngster's obvious nervousness, Friedgen expressed optimism.
"Give him credit. He came back," Friedgen said. "There's a lot of guys who would have packed it in. . . . It's lonely when you're [out] there. I think that Joel showed us some stuff tonight and I thought he made some pretty good plays, too." The coach said he hoped that "next time he's going to be more confident from being able to win this game."
Statham brought precious little experience to his first start, having been on the sidelines for two years, his redshirt season and most of last season with the exception of a lengthy, and unsuccessful, relief appearance against Georgia Tech. With 51,830 at Byrd Stadium and Northern Illinois again proving to be a stubborn opponent even though it lost its starting quarterback after the first series, Statham might have been expected to be jittery. And that he was, with a first half of bobbles and misfirings. He had said repeatedly this week that he would have to get used to big crowds and the speed of the game and everything else that could distract a rookie. But by the second half, for quite a while, anyway, he seemed to be adjusting fairly well.
"I think it was just me and the jitters," he said. "I kind of got them out early."
There was no blaming him on his fourth fumble. A defensive end, Ken West, hit him extremely hard on an all-out rush, knocking the ball free to give Northern Illinois its last-gasp touchdown.
Statham's best of times came when Davis helped him find his groove. Statham completed five passes to the tight end for 72 yards; on the other side of the ball, junior linebacker D'Qwell Jackson played like an unmistakable NFL prospect. If the bad news was Statham's shaky start, the good news seemed to be that he could pull himself together.
Statham's midgame stretch appeared to lift the entire team's spirits. It's the kind of effect a quarterback can have, and maybe something he will come to provide regularly. It was especially encouraging for Maryland considering his bleak start. Those opening minutes proved a mighty struggle for Statham. He had trouble completing anything, either a pass downfield or an option flip to a running back. For openers, he pitched back to no one in particular, the ball rolled loose and Maryland turned it over. A little later, on a mysterious play selection given his first attempt at it, Statham once again -- this time from deep in Terrapins territory, at the 7-yard line -- was asked to execute an option pitch. That, too, went awry and Maryland was pinned for a safety. Still later, Statham fumbled the snap from center on a third down, forcing the Terrapins to punt.
The crowd quieted and squirmed, as it would in the final minutes. But the coaches worked with Statham. As if a decision was made to try to run the butterflies out of him, Statham took off on a quarterback keeper that accounted for 24 yards, and that helped Maryland complete its first touchdown drive of the season. Later, in the second period, he completed a 39-yarder to Davis that eventually led to a 43-yard field goal by senior Nick Novak, enabling him to set an ACC scoring record.
It was an inconsistent night for Statham, but it was only a beginning. "It's obvious," he said, "that I need more work to improve for the next game." Northern Illinois forced him and Maryland to work hard, and it took Novak with three long field goals to make the difference. Friedgen said that maybe his team will learn a lot from playing as difficult an opponent as Northern Illinois. It's a matter of learning, he said, and that's what his teams have done in the past. How well Statham and rest of the Terrapins learn now will determine the course of this season. There's a lot of football left to play.