- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 28, 2003

It shouldn’t take long for Maryland’s highest preseason ranking in 18 years to prove to be an illusion or a harbinger of perhaps its best year yet under coach Ralph Friedgen.

Despite its early ACC showdown at Florida State on Sept.6, the No.15 Terrapins had better not be looking past tonight’s opener against Northern Illinois in DeKalb, Ill. Northern Illinois is seeking its third straight Mid-American Conference title behind running back Michael Turner, whose 1,915 yards last year are the most nationally among returning players.

More than 25,000 are expected for Maryland’s first game in the state since 1926, and the Terps can’t underestimate an opponent that beat Wake Forest 42-41 and lost to Wisconsin 24-21 last season. The Huskies started game countdown clocks in their weight room four months ago.

“This is going to be their bowl game,” said Terps defensive coordinator Gary Blackney, who coached in the MAC for 10 years.

Maryland is on the cusp of the nation’s top 10 after compiling a 21-5 record in Friedgen’s two seasons. The Terps also collected an ACC title and Peach Bowl victory.

However, many players still feel the need to prove themselves, and a quick start could lead to a 9-0 run before late-season ACC showdowns against Virginia and N.C. State. It’s the first time Maryland opens with two road games since 1982.

“In years past, we were just hoping we could do something,” cornerback Curome Cox said. “This year we believe we can do something. We’re going to prove to ourselves and others what we can do.”

Said receiver Latrez Harrison: “I don’t want to go back to the 5-6 seasons. When we were 5-6 [in 2000], Steve Blake and the basketball team got the hot articles, and people didn’t even notice us. Now it’s a little different.”

Friedgen has spent the last three weeks watching for signs of complacency. He worried that players weren’t pushing themselves hard enough in the opening days of practice before injuries eventually sidelined nearly two dozen players. But he has been pleased with the past 10 days of workouts

“The question isn’t what we’ve done,” he said. “It’s can we continue to do it? How important is that to us? Have we arrived, or do we expect to go further? I expect to go further.”

But that means not falling upset victim to Northern Illinois, which mirrors Maryland’s strengths with a balanced offense, veteran defense and strong special teams.

“There’s definitely pressure, especially against a [good] team like Northern Illinois,” quarterback Scott McBrien said. “You want to execute the offense and really perform. It’s a big game on their schedule.”

McBrien is “95 percent” since returning from a strained groin suffered during practice Aug.18. The senior’s maturity should prevent a poor beginning like last season’s, when the offense sputtered during a 1-2 start. Although Maryland will be missing injured running back Bruce Perry, receiver/kick returner Steve Suter and guard Lamar Bryant, the offense clearly dominated during an intrasquad scrimmage as McBrien regularly used three or four receivers.

“Scott was like a Ryan Leaf last year compared to a Peyton Manning now,” Harrison said.

Defensively, Maryland has to stop Turner and a pass-action passing game that can strike deep quickly. The Terps’ secondary is perhaps their defensive strength, with four experienced starters, but stopping Turner up front will prove challenging. He gained more than 200 yards in four games last year and more than 100 yards in nine.

“You have to keep him going along the line of scrimmage because once he goes north and south, he’s got breakaway speed,” Blackney said.

The Terps also must replace All-American middle linebacker E.J. Henderson. However, successor D’Qwell Jackson has been one of the camp standouts. Linebackers Leroy Ambush and Leon Joe were impressive, too. Highly touted freshman linebacker Wesley Jefferson may be red-shirted.

Given the rash of camp injuries that limited some practices and forced younger players like guard Akil Patterson to start, Friedgen expects some glitches.

“I’m sure nothing is going to go perfectly,” he said. “It’s how we adapt after that that counts.”

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