Milton Harris has gotten a first-hand look at Marques Hagans two years in a row; during Maryland's home win over Virginia in 2003, and when Virginia returned the favor last year in Charlottesville.
Harris, though, has been watching Hagans far longer, since the former was a senior at DuVal High in Lanham and the latter -- now Virginia's starting quarterback -- was a prep school star at Fork Union Military Academy. Harris's close friend and former high school teammate Caleb Cranke also played for Fork Union, and Cranke couldn't stop talking about his team's quarterback. Harris finally saw a Fork Union game tape, and then he understood.
"What he's doing now, it's like nothing new to me," said Harris, now Maryland's starting strong safety. "He's an athlete. He's a great athlete who can make plays."
And while Hagans has not been consistently brilliant in Virginia's 3-0 start, he has certainly made plays. In a season-opening win against Western Michigan, he passed for a career-high 252 yards. In a last-second win at Syracuse he was Virginia's leading rusher, gaining a career-high 110 yards on 14 carries, including one 26-yarder that helped set up the Cavs' go-ahead field goal. Last Saturday against Duke, Hagans played his best game of the season, throwing a career-high four touchdowns and, for the first time this year, zero interceptions.
The fifth-year senior is being asked to throw more this year -- "if you watched the games, you certainly would come to that conclusion," always-expansive Virginia Coach Al Groh said -- and has bumped his average passing performance from 169 yards a game last year to 190 yards this year.
"So now you've got a double problem," Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen said. "In past years they had a very good line and good backs and they ran the ball first and then threw it. Now, they're kind of mixing it up and giving [Hagans] the ability to scramble and create plays."
Still, his run-heavy showing against Syracuse might prove particularly worrisome for a Maryland team that has already lived through unpleasant encounters with mobile quarterbacks. Navy's elusive Lamar Owens gained 122 yards against the Terps despite missing time because of a hand cramp. West Virginia backup Pat White rushed for 62 yards against Maryland, including a 33-yard scramble on a broken play that led to the Mountaineers' back-breaking touchdown. So how do the Terps feel about facing another quarterback with similar potential?
"It pretty much [stinks], that's all you can say," junior nose tackle Conrad Bolston said. "I'd rather have a 280-pound guy that just sits in the pocket. Ask anybody on the defense, they'll probably tell you the same thing."
To stop Hagans, coaches and players said, the Terps must do what they failed to do against West Virginia: win battles at the line of scrimmage to free up their linebackers, not stray from their assignments and not lose outside containment. They must also reprise the ball-swarming effort that surfaced last week against Wake Forest, preventing broken tackles and causing four much-needed fumbles. The first-half Wake Forest fumble that cornerback Josh Wilson returned for a touchdown was jarred loose by Harris, the third Maryland player in on the tackle.
"I thought they played like our defense of old," said Friedgen, who had been pleading for such group efforts in prior weeks.
Virginia will also likely take a few chances downfield; wide receiver Deyon Williams (Suitland) is coming off a career week in which he caught two touchdowns, and Groh said this year's liberated passing offense is more aggressive than last year's. Hagans's ability to keep plays alive -- "evadability," Friedgen called it -- could offer a further test to Maryland's pass defense, which ranks first in the ACC partly because opponents have been content to keep the ball on the ground.
"You're going to have to cover longer than you normally would, because when you get pressure on [Hagans] he can create and buy time for his receivers to get open," Harris said. "There's no telling how long you may have to cover a receiver. That's going to present a challenge in itself."
And yet Maryland's defense is finally playing with a confidence reminiscent of seasons past, and the Terps said that, too, would be deployed against Virginia's quarterback.
"We finally got our swagger, we finally got a rhythm going," linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said. "If you've got any kind of pride, or any kind of competitiveness, you've got to get up for this game."