The most scrutinized hamstring in West Virginia belongs to Kay-Jay Harris, the 25-year-old Mountaineers running back whose status remains questionable for Saturday's game against Maryland.
Terrapins Coach Ralph Friedgen is preparing as if Harris will play Saturday, one week after the senior pulled his hamstring on the second play of the Mountaineers' victory over Central Florida. West Virginia Coach Rich Rodriguez, meantime, said yesterday that he is preparing as if Harris won't be available, although it likely will be a game-time decision.
Seventh-ranked West Virginia's enhanced running attack is predicated largely on Harris, who rushed for a Big East-record 337 yards in the opener against East Carolina. It was his first career 100-yard rushing day, but it prompted some Web sites to mention his name among Heisman Trophy hopefuls.
Although his availability would strengthen West Virginia's offense, the Terrapins say they want him on the field.
"I want their best shot," Maryland defensive end Kevin Eli said.
Although Harris has told local reporters that the injury has shown significant progress, Rodriguez has offered a more ominous forecast. From Sunday to Monday, Rodriguez changed Harris's status from questionable to "very" questionable.
The 21st-ranked Terrapins (2-0) have beaten West Virginia four straight times, often by containing the run and pressuring the quarterback. But the 2004 Mountaineers offer a different look on the ground, said Friedgen, who has watched West Virginia use two tailbacks more often this season.
The Mountaineers (2-0) also will lean heavily on sophomore Jason Colson, who has run for 172 yards on 34 carries. In addition to Harris's injury, though, third-string tailback Bryan Wright, who carried for 55 yards on 12 carries against Central Florida, has a sore ankle.
If Harris is out or ineffective, West Virginia might have to rely on freshman Pernell Williams if it looks to maintain its two-tailback backfield. "It's a major issue," Rodriguez said. "We didn't feel like we had a lot of depth at tailback."
The backs, however, are aided by an offensive line that features no starter shorter than 6 feet 4. In all, the five linemen have started 94 games. While Eli and Shawne Merriman are stout defensive ends, Maryland lacks significant experience at the tackle positions.
"This week," Maryland defensive tackle Henry Scott said, "we're really focusing on the running attack. . . . I know they are going to try to get as many yards as they can against our young defensive line."
The Mountaineers have pounded opponents on the ground in 2004; 101 of 134 plays have been running plays. The rushing game has totaled 713 yards and averaged 7.1 yards per play. West Virginia also has converted 26 of its 41 first downs by running the ball.
Eli said the key is for players to stay in the gaps until it's clear which direction the ball will be run. "The more disciplined we are," he said, "the better we are. . . . We have to play the best we've ever played. We have to dominate up front."
Last year, Eli said, Maryland took away West Virginia's running game, allowing 120 yards in the 34-7 win, which forced fleet-footed quarterback Rasheed Marshall to be more active.
Friedgen said that West Virginia uses the run to force defenses to crowd the box. Then it looks to spread the field with a mature wide receiving corps. Either way, West Virginia is a big-play offense; it already has five touchdowns of 50 yards or longer.
But the focus will be on Harris. The Florida native has worn a red jersey during practice and won't participate all week. Harris underwent treatment at 6:30 a.m. Monday, Rodriguez said, but showed a considerable limp. If Harris is not 100 percent, it would be difficult for him to be effective, Rodriguez added.
Extenuating circumstances -- a nationally televised game against a border rival -- can prove cathartic, according to a former teammate of Harris. "I think it's going to be hard to keep him out," said Quincy Wilson, West Virginia's 2003 starting tailback. "These are the games people judge you on."
The 6-1 Harris equaled his 2003 touchdown total (four) in the East Carolina victory. Wilson, for one, wasn't surprised by his performance. He had seen Harris in the spring game, when he outran defensive back Adam Jones, who is described in the team's media guide as possessing "supersonic speed."
Maryland players, after watching film of Harris, described him as a runner who likes to cut back across the field. Friedgen, however, said he saw a resemblance between Walter Washington, the strong and mobile Temple quarterback, and Harris. "Washington could run you over, almost like Harris," Friedgen said.
Despite four straight victories over the Mountaineers, Eli believes his team is the underdog. And limiting West Virginia's success on the ground will be paramount to keeping the Terps' undefeated record intact heading into ACC play.
"They've blown out their first two opponents," Eli said. "They average 500 yards of offense per game. And they have one of the best backs in the country. This will be a test for our defense."
Terrapins Notes: The starting time for the Sept. 25 game at Duke will be noon. . . . Right guard Russell Bonham (knee) has returned to practice, but Friedgen won't decide whether he will start until the end of the week. . . . Friedgen said Notre Dame transfer Isaiah Gardner enrolled in classes Monday and will add maturity to a secondary that will have lost 11 players in two years by May 2005. . . . Rain is expected for Saturday's game, which will be televised at noon on ESPN2.