This season, Virginia Tech's first in the expanded Atlantic Coast Conference, was expected to be somewhat of a rebuilding year. The Hokies lost their last two games in 2003, finished 8-5 and were picked by the media to finishing sixth this season.
But Virginia Tech, with three games remaining, sits atop the ACC standings and is the only team with one conference loss. One person not surprised by the Hokies' emergence is Ralph Friedgen, whose Maryland team faces the Hokies in a nationally televised game tomorrow.
"Not really," Friedgen said, "because they have a senior quarterback. If you're going to rebuild, that's a nice place to start. I think I'm rebuilding. I've got two young quarterbacks."
The challenge of containing Hokies quarterback Bryan Randall is paramount for a Maryland defense that looked most vulnerable in its most recent game. Virginia ran for 295 yards in the Cavaliers' 16-0 victory on Nov. 6. Two players had more than 100 rushing yards against Maryland for the first time since 1994.
Maryland players noted that Virginia Tech's offense is propelled by its running game, which uses the ability of Randall and back Mike Imoh behind an imposing offensive line. Imoh rushed for a school-record 243 yards in Saturday's win against North Carolina. All Randall has done this season is average 40 rushing yards per game, the most of any ACC quarterback.
"It's real tough," Maryland cornerback Domonique Foxworth said. "But being in the ACC, we play talented quarterbacks every week, so I wouldn't separate Randall from anyone else we've faced, especially [Marques] Hagans the week before" for Virginia.
One of Randall's traits that most impresses Friedgen is the leadership the senior has seemed to provide, particularly with a young group of wide receivers. Randall ranks third in the ACC in total offense despite averaging 164.4 passing yards per game, which is second-worst in the conference. His rushing ability often allows him to salvage plays that have broken down.
"From a performance standpoint, the thing that impresses you is his ability to run the football," Friedgen said. "He has the ability to take a bad play and turn it into a good play, and some of his best plays have come with his scrambling. But that doesn't mean he's a bad passer. He has a very strong arm."
Foxworth said the difference between Randall and Hagans is that Randall is a better passer; both are good athletes. Randall needs only 286 passing yards to become Virginia Tech's career passing leader.
For the most part this season, the Terps (4-5, 2-4) have defended the pass well, ranking third in the conference in pass defense efficiency. One factor is how motivated Maryland will be given that some players, according to Friedgen, were emotionally uninspired and "zombie-like" in the Virginia loss.
Every Maryland player is wearing a red rubber wristband this week to symbolize team unity. The Terps used a similar motivational tactic prior to the Florida State game, when they wore "I believe" T-shirts after signing a placard.
"A lot of the fans and media have turned against us in some respects," Foxworth said, "but we're still together."
Players acknowledge that unity will be a key tomorrow because players will compete at Lane Stadium for the first time in their careers. They expect a hostile environment similar to West Virginia or North Carolina State, but the unknown creates another challenge in addition to Randall and the Hokies' running game.
Friedgen's public message that players had "blank stares" was not directed at the players who have been defensive leaders all season, namely defensive end Shawne Merriman, linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, safety Chris Kelley and Foxworth.
"We've had pride all year," Merriman said, "even when things weren't going so well. Maybe there were a couple minutes left in some games and we knew the chances of winning weren't that great, even then, that's a pride factor, not letting a team score then."
Terrapin Notes: Maryland's final regular season game, against Wake Forest at Byrd Stadium, will begin at noon on Nov. 27. . . . Friedgen updated the wide receiver injury situation, classifying Jo Jo Walker (concussion) as questionable and Dan Melendez (hamstring) and Drew Weatherly (hamstring) as doubtful. Defensive end Kevin Eli (ankle) is questionable. Offensive linemen Scott Burley and Brandon Nixon have returned to practice.