- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 28, 2002

After its 10-2 reawakening last fall, Maryland's football team should be rip-snortin' ready to go Saturday night when it opens its season against Notre Dame in the Kickoff Classic at Giants Stadium.

This won't be North Carolina, the Terps' first victims of 2001, hunkering down across the line of scrimmage. Or, for that matter, even Florida State, the undisputed bully boys of ACC football until Maryland chopped the league championship from under the Seminoles' tomahawks last season.

This is Notre Dame Notre Dame, the nation's most legend-laden, mystique-drenched and probably richest college football program. Playing the Fighting Irish is different than playing anybody else, even when they're coming off a 5-6 season and the embarrassment of George O'Leary being fired a week after signing on because he had turned his resume into a work of fiction.

"A game like this is where you want to be," Maryland wide receiver Scooter Monroe said. "When you grow up, you either dream of playing for Notre Dame or playing against Notre Dame. I'm looking at this game like we'll be playing against our scout team. Yeah, I know they'll have gold helmets on, but you can't let it affect your performance."

Easier said than done, Scooter baby. When you go up to catch a pass, you won't see George Gipp or the Four Horsemen defending against you but they'll be there in spirit. And nobody will mistake Tyrone Willingham, the Irish's new coach, for Knute Rockne but I wouldn't be surprised if Willingham hears a few ghostly whispers coming through his headphones during the evening.

That's what playing Notre Dame involves, and the experience can be unnerving. Said longtime fan Rob Carey, an Irishman through and through: "Playing Notre Dame is like playing against Pele, Wayne Gretzky or Michael Jordan you have to worry about the legend as much as the reality. It's past, present and future all rolled into one."

Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen understands and respects the syndrome as much as any other coach with a smattering of common sense.

"This game is a great chance for our players, our program and fans that's why I accepted it," he said. "Notre Dame's mystique and tradition are undeniable, and that's kind of the way we want our program to go. But I'm a little bit concerned because Georgia Tech played an opening game at Notre Dame [when Friedgen was a Tech assistant in 1997] it was the dedication of their stadium and we had a chance to win the game and couldn't get it done. And we had a young team, just like this [Maryland] one is."

Obviously, the potential rewards are immense for the Maryland program that Friedgen revived so dramatically in his first season. For one thing, the school will bring home a check of at least $650,000 from the 20th and final Kickoff Classic (the NCAA has banned such preseason games after this year). Even more importantly, a victory over the Fighting Irish would give the Terps an incalculable boost in prestige and recruiting ammunition.

But first things first. On paper, Maryland stands a good chance of beating a team coming off a 5-6 season and with a new coach who wasn't its first choice. But the game won't be played on paper, and Maryland has a history of rolling over against perennial powers like Penn State and Florida State.

Friedgen was asked yesterday whether he felt any special pressure going into the game and responded as you would expect any coach to do: "I feel pressure before every game." But I wouldn't be surprised if Ralph has a little more trouble than usual getting his pregame salad down (in keeping with the strict diet that has lopped 43 pounds off his torso since the end of last season).

Ever since athletic director Debbie Yow canned Ron Vanderlinden after the 2000 season and summoned Maryland alum Friedgen north, things have been looking up, up, up with the exception of similarly lopsided losses to Florida State last October and Florida in the Orange Bowl. But now it's a new season, and the Terps have to do it all over again, against the toughest of opponents from a historical standpoint, by way of proving they're not one-season wonders.

I think they will.

Maryland 27, Notre Dame 21.

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