Maryland quarterback Joel Statham needed two home games to calm his nerves and flash the potential the Terrapins saw in practices. Now Statham must contend with Mountaineer Field, where insults won’t be the only thing hurled from the stands.
No.21 Maryland (2-0) visits No.7 West Virginia (2-0) tomorrow seeking its fifth straight victory over the Mountaineers. It figures to be nasty in Morgantown, not only from expected heavy rains but from fans still stinging from a 41-7 loss to the Terps in the Gator Bowl.
The capacity crowd of 60,000 likely will consider Maryland the toughest hurdle to West Virginia going undefeated this season. The Mountaineers should sweep through the depleted Big East Conference, which has lost former heavyweights Miami and Virginia Tech to the ACC.
However, Maryland has been West Virginia’s biggest nemesis since Terps coach Ralph Friedgen’s 2001 arrival. The Terps have won their four meetings by an average 38-12, including a 34-7 regular-season romp a year ago.
Friedgen has joked about dodging whiskey bottles at Mountaineer Field. Players talk of batteries and other objects hitting them during a 48-17 victory there in 2002. This time, sophomore Statham figures to be the main target.
The Mountaineers focused the last two years on Terps passer Scott McBrien, a West Virginia transfer who ranked alongside Benedict Arnold around Morgantown. Now Statham will be the prime target.
He was so nervous during his first start against Northern Illinois that he botched two pitchouts. Statham fumbled four times with one interception to help give Northern Illinois 10 points in Maryland’s 23-20 victory. However, he regrouped last week against Temple, completing his opening pass for 12 yards en route to 268 yards and two touchdowns in three quarters.
“The game is starting to slow down a little bit,” he said. “I’m starting to see things a little better. It’s starting to get a little easier.”
But Statham knows he’s still unproven against top teams. ACC combat looms after West Virginia, with trips to Clemson, Virginia and Virginia Tech promising to be as hostile as West Virginia.
“This is a big test not just for Joel but a lot of our players,” Friedgen said. “Going into this environment and playing a top-ranked team will be a challenge, but if Joel can do well he’ll grow tremendously. It’s something he has to have. I could see him gaining confidence on the field last week. He was in complete control of what he was doing.”
Friedgen noticed Statham practicing better over the past week after the coach mentioned the passer hadn’t completed 70 percent in workouts.
“I said to Joel, ‘You haven’t thrown for very good percentage in practice,’” Friedgen said. “He said, ‘You don’t think I’m trying?’ and I said, ‘No, I just made a statement.’ Since I’ve said that, he’s been close to 70 percent. Sometimes we go to the right place with the ball, but whether we close the deal or not was incidental to him. He made the right read and threw to the right guy — so what if we didn’t catch it? That’s what I was trying to get across to him.”
Statham encountered a frantic Georgia Tech crowd and persistent blitzing last season after McBrien was injured. Statham then was the No.3 quarterback suddenly playing with little preparation, and his two turnovers were instrumental in the 7-3 loss. However, it also showed Friedgen that Statham wasn’t intimidated easily.
Maybe the expected heavy rain will drown out the crowd or perhaps the Terps will take a big early lead to silence the fans. But Statham is readying for din in which even calling plays in the huddle will be challenging.
“It’s all part of being young,” he said. “You have to learn to cope with it.”
Note — Guards C.J. Brooks (concussion) and Brandon Nixon (shoulder) and linebacker D’Qwell Jackson (elbow) are expected to play against West Virginia. Receiver Dan Melendez (hamstring) is out.