- The Washington Times - Friday, September 14, 2007

Once again last night, Maryland’s football team had a dandy chance to prove it can play with the big kids.

Once again, nothing doing.

West Virginia’s 31-14 romp before 53,107 at Byrd Stadium made it clear that the Terrapins are far from being the fearsome bunch they were during coach Ralph Friedgen’s first three seasons (2001 to 2004).

The Terps may well finish with a winning record and go to a second- or third-tier bowl. But such minimal accomplishments won’t satisfy Friedgen, hard-driving athletic director Debbie Yow and all those equally ambitious fans.

What’s more, matters might get worse before they get better. Looming directly ahead for the Terps are dates with Wake Forest and Rutgers, recent Cinderella-type teams, and 15th-ranked Georgia Tech. So Maryland conceivably could have a 2-4 record by midseason.

The Terps probably needed a miracle to upset fourth-ranked West Virginia, and none was in sight — not even with Doug Flutie working the nationally televised game for ESPN.

As they have in so many other significant games over the years, Maryland put itself in a hole before all the tailgaters had found their seats. On the Terps’ first play from scrimmage, center Edwin Williams and quarterback Jordan Steffy managed to muck up the snap. A Mountaineers lineman named Johnny Dingle pounced on the ball, and shortly thereafter quarterback Pat White sprinted 22 yards for a touchdown.

Forty-five seconds after the start of combat, Maryland was down 7-0, and those of little faith might have began recalling last season’s disaster in Morgantown, when the Mountaineers shocked the dazed Terps by scoring four touchdowns in the first quarter.

It didn’t get that bad this time — in fact, Maryland pulled even briefly on a 4-yard touchdown run by Keon Lattimore late in the quarter — but it soon became obvious that the Terps had no way to stop quarterback White and tailback Steve Slaton, the visitors’ two legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates. For the evening, Slaton scored three touchdowns on runs of 22, 1 and 1 yards.

As if this pair weren’t trouble enough, the Mountaineers also produced a freshman named Noel Devine who set up both of Slaton’s touchdowns with runs of 33 and 76 yards — clearly a case of Devine intervention.

Four seasons ago, Maryland’s football team beat up on West Virginia not once but twice — 34-7 in the regular season, 41-7 in the Gator Bowl. As Friedgen completed his third season in College Park, his program seemed far more advanced than that of Rich Rodriguez’s in Morgantown.

So what happened?

Since that New Year’s Day in Jacksonville, Fla., Maryland is a mediocre 21-17, mostly because of 5-6 misadventures in 2004 and 2005. West Virginia, meanwhile, is 33-7.

Ouch!

Over the decades, this has become one of the great regional rivalries. In Maryland’s case, the Mountaineers have joined Virginia, Virginia Tech and Navy as opponents they would love to beat — not in the least for recruiting leverage.

For Maryland fans, though, the seesaw nature of the series must be disturbing. The Terps won four straight through the Gator Bowl; now they’ve lost four straight.

Fortunately for Maryland, the teams do not meet for the next two seasons.

“Rich has done a very good job of recruiting, and he has good players,” Friedgen said earlier this week when asked about the different paths the teams seem to be taking. “We’re just looking to go out there and do the best we can every day.”

Then Friedgen added, “West Virginia has had more rest than we do because they played at 11:30 last Saturday morning [in a 48-23 destruction of state rival Marshall, and we played at night [in an unimpressive 26-10 victory over widely unheralded Florida International].”

Now, I would never accuse the Fridge of making excuses, but …

Someone noted that West Virginia “was ranked 106th” [actually 94th] in pass defense nationally, giving Steffy a theoretical chance to prove he is the Terps’ best quarterback since, say, Sam Hollenbach.

“I don’t know where they’re ranked,” Friedgen snapped, “but they win a lot of games.”

Which is the name of the game, of course.

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