In an effort to limit distractions and quell criticism, Ralph Friedgen yesterday barred starting quarterback Joel Statham from speaking to the media until further notice and the Maryland coach chided outsiders who have questioned the mechanics of the first-year player.
Friedgen's comments spiced up his weekly news conference, which came three days after the Terps lost a turnover-laden, 19-16 overtime game at West Virginia that raised further questions about the development of the 20-year-old quarterback.
Friedgen continues to show steadfast support for Statham, who threw three first-half interceptions last Saturday and was fumble-prone in a season-opening victory over Northern Illinois. The 23rd-ranked Terps (2-1) open their Atlantic Coast Conference schedule Saturday at Duke (0-3) with a passing attack that ranks 78th nationally.
"It's a growing period; it's a learning period. Right now, I don't think Joel needs to be distracted," said Friedgen, adding, "If you have any questions, I'll deal with those."
An illustration of potential distractions occurred early in yesterday's practice, when a red car sped by Maryland's practice field and a man hollered one word from the front seat: "Turnover!"
Friedgen has cautioned throughout the summer that the offense is difficult to grasp and that Statham will be a "work in progress." That hasn't stopped fans from clamoring on Internet message boards for backup Jordan Steffy, a true freshman whom Friedgen has said was his most accurate passer.
Asked about Steffy's progress yesterday, Friedgen said: "We'd like to get Jordan more experience. I'd like to see Jordan improve his practice right now. It's kind of leveled off."
Teammates, particularly team leaders, maintain that no one has lost confidence in Statham. After seeing Maryland commit a series of early turnovers Saturday, cornerback Domonique Foxworth said he thought at the time that the game could turn "real ugly, real quick." But he was encouraged by how Statham persevered to give Maryland a 13-10 fourth-quarter lead.
"As one of the seniors and leaders on the team," Foxworth said, "I feel confident that Joel is the best man for the job." Added left tackle Stephon Heyer: "Joel knows what he did wrong. He knows that we have to win out and win big."
Friedgen took a similar approach leading up to last season's Sept. 20 game against West Virginia, when he restricted media access to Terps quarterback Scott McBrien, who transferred from WVU.
Up to that point in the season, McBrien had struggled. He threw for 171 yards in his first two games combined and contemplated quitting after an 0-2 start, offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe has said. McBrien, however, did not lose another game, he finished the rest of the season and was named the most valuable player of the Gator Bowl.
"Scott had some trials during the season," Foxworth said, "so if we can draw anything from that, we'll be in good shape."
Saturday's loss was Maryland's first since Oct. 23, when the Terps fell, 7-3, against a Georgia Tech team that knocked McBrien out of the game in the first half. Statham finished the game against a West Virginia defense that repeatedly blitzed and harassed him, a performance Friedgen said showed heart.
Much like McBrien's problems early in 2003, Statham has looked strong in practice but has admittedly suffered from jitters early in games. Statham struggled in the spring game, to a lesser extent in the summer's intrasquad scrimmage and again in the season opener.
As Friedgen pointed out, many of the problems Saturday extended beyond Statham's passing. Friedgen would like to see receivers run better routes and improve in catching the football.
There also were numerous communication errors. Noise from the sellout crowd of 60,358 at Mountaineer Field made it difficult for players to hear play signals and move correctly when audibles were called. Maryland used two timeouts to avoid delay-of-game penalties.
Heyer said some of the young players might have been "dazed and wide-eyed," adding, "So they are missing some of the assignments that they wouldn't ordinarily do at home."
Maryland won't face another hostile crowd until it travels to Clemson next month, but the coaching staff is preparing the team now for difficult environs. Friedgen said the crowd noise piped into Monday's practice was so loud, "a lot of the windows in the dorms were probably vibrating."
Given Maryland's propensity for turning over the ball this season, Friedgen expects Duke to make the Terps throw the football to win. Experiencing adverse playing conditions during the West Virginia game will help all players, not just Statham, for the long term -- at least it should, Friedgen said.
"If we haven't gotten better from that experience," he said, "then that loss was in vain. We've been there now, in a street fight in a foreign land."
Terrapins Notes: Friedgen's eyes welled yesterday when he spoke of Foxworth, who was beaten on inside coverage on the final play in overtime.
On a third-and-four play from the 7, Maryland blitzed, leaving Foxworth to cover 6-foot-5 wide receiver Chris Henry. The 5-11 Foxworth expected Henry to run a fade route to take advantage of his height. But Henry cut inside on a slant, gaining position on Foxworth.
After the ball was snapped, quarterback Rasheed Marshall first glanced left, giving Foxworth "a false sense of security," he said. Marshall then looked right and fired a pass to Henry for the game-winning touchdown.
Usually in practice, Friedgen said, Foxworth is impenetrable on inside routes. "We couldn't get inside Domonique," Friedgen said, "if we had a drill hammer."