Maryland 23, N. Illinois 20
Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen didn't get much sleep this week, as he worried about the poise of his young team and the composure of his new starting quarterback. He worried for good reason.
Maryland committed several mistakes and survived numerous anxious moments to beat Northern Illinois, 23-20, last night before 51,830 at Byrd Stadium. The Terps avenged last season's overtime loss to the Huskies and started the season with a victory for the first time in three years.
Throughout the week, Maryland heard Northern Illinois talking about not being intimidated playing in College Park, where Maryland is now 20-1 under Friedgen. The Huskies boasted about last year's overtime victory not being a fluke. And they backed up their bark last night despite playing with a backup quarterback for almost the whole game.
"I told you we would make mistakes," Friedgen said. "And we sure did."
Maryland starting quarterback Joel Statham threw one interception and fumbled four times, including three in the first quarter. Statham completed 12 of 22 passes for 169 yards, but clearly showed that he remains a work in progress.
With 5 minutes 34 seconds remaining and Maryland leading by 11, Northern Illinois defensive end Ken West forced Statham to fumble for the fourth time. Huskies linebacker Jason Hawkins picked up the loose ball and ran 85 yards for a touchdown. Northern Illinois converted the two-point conversion to close to within 23-20.
But this was when Friedgen saw a difference. Last year, he said, as the Huskies threatened to pull an upset, panic set in on Maryland's sideline. This year, the coach said, there was determination. Maryland center Kyle Schmitt agreed.
"I don't think there is any doubt," he said. "Coach jumped on us in the second quarter and said, 'Who wants it more?' Because we heard all week their players saying they wanted it more last year."
The Huskies had a final opportunity in the waning moments to try to tie the score with a field goal or go ahead with a touchdown. Northern Illinois drove the ball to the Maryland 33 but couldn't adequately manage time before the clock ran out.
The Terps were fortunate the Huskies had a sophomore behind center whose career highlight entering the game was that he made the travel squad five times in 2003.
The Huskies' usual starting quarterback, Josh Haldi, had been hampered by a stress fracture in his foot throughout the latter stages of summer practice. The senior looked somewhat mobile in pregame warmups, but lasted only one series last night, hobbling to the sideline afterward.
"On that second play down the sideline, I could see that he pulled up lame right away," Northern Illinois Coach Joe Novak said. "As soon as I saw that, of course, I grabbed him."
Haldi's backup, Phil Horvath, completed 19 of 36 passes for 219 yards against a Maryland defense that led the ACC in pass defense last season.
The Terps got three field goals from senior kicker Nick Novak, whose first kick made him the leading scorer in ACC history. But the story remained Statham's adventure.
On the first play of Maryland's second possession of the game, Statham ran right on an option and made a poor pitch behind halfback Sammy Maldonado. Hawkins recovered at the Maryland 37.
On Maryland's next possession, Northern Illinois pinned Maryland back inside its 10. On second and five from the 7, Statham made another errant pitch back to running back Josh Allen, who was tackled in the end zone by end Kursten Strothman for a safety.
"Tonight was definitely fluke-ish," said Statham, who only threw 25 passes last season. "I've run the option my whole life. That's what I've grown up to do."
Statham's first pass completion didn't come until 10 minutes remained in the second quarter, when he avoided a sack and found sophomore tight end Vernon Davis downfield for a 39-yard reception. It took only one half for Davis to establish new career highs in receptions (three) and yards (52), evidence of Maryland's plan to rely on its trio of versatile tight ends this season.
Maryland middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson intercepted two first-half passes to stop Northern Illinois drives and set up Maryland scoring drives.
"I'm glad we're in better shape than we were last year," Friedgen said, "or we wouldn't have won that game."