- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2004

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - For anyone facing knee surgery in eight days, the thought of sprinting 76 yards with a passel of mad Mountaineers in hot and heavy pursuit should be terrifying.

Anyone except Steve Suter, that is.

Ignoring whatever pain was caused by the torn meniscus in his left knee, Maryland’s junior return man and wide receiver zigged and zagged that far for the game-breaking touchdown in the second quarter yesterday as the Terrapins battered West Virginia 41-7 in the 59th Gator Bowl.

Just to prove it was no fluke, the 5-foot-10, 192-pounder from Manchester, Md., contributed a dazzling catch of a deflected pass from Scott McBrien for a 43-yard gain to set up a third-quarter TD. But it was the punt return that shot Maryland into a 17-0 lead and left West Virginia’s upset hopes a’molderin’ in the grave like John Brown’s body at Harpers Ferry in 1859.

Such dramatic doings are nothing new for Suter, who tied an NCAA record last year by taking four punts all the way. This season, though, he missed two games because of a hamstring problem, then sustained the knee injury Sept.27 against Eastern Michigan. Adding to his autumn of discontent, opposing teams frequently kicked away from him — smart strategy that West Virginia punter Todd James should have employed yesterday. Suter was certainly overdue, considering he had returned only one punt for a touchdown since August.

Touchdown? It seems amazing he could walk, much less scamper hither, thither and yon across anybody’s greensward.

“I call it sucking it up,” coach Ralph Friedgen said after the Terps finished a two-game season sweep of West Virginia by a combined 75-14. “I knew he was hurting, so I called him in Monday and told him to get [the knee] fixed right after the season, not to go home for three weeks or anything.”

Translation from coachspeak: Friedgen wants Suter healthy in time for spring practice. With quarterback Scott McBrien and top receivers Latrez Harrison and Jafar Williams departing, Suter could become Maryland’s premier playmaker on offense next season rather than being spotted at wideout. Of course, he didn’t do badly during a 10-1 finish by Maryland that effectively erased memories of an 0-2 start — especially for a guy who sometimes seemed ready for a senior citizens home.

“I felt like I was 90 years old in practice,” Suter said. “In games, it wasn’t so bad, because the adrenaline would be flowing, but when we practiced it took me an hour, hour and a half to get warmed up — and then only for a little while. The pain was always there, sort of an ache.”

If Suter required any further motivation for the Terps’ fourth Gator Bowl visit, he got it earlier in the week when the Terps studied West Virginia on film. The Mountaineers have two pretty fair return men themselves in Lance Frazier and Adam Jones, and another look at them put a glint in Suter’s eyes and a twinkle in his toes.

“You only hurt yourself when you get a reputation [because the collective enemy makes you a marked man], but I couldn’t let [Frazier and Jones] get all the limelight,” he said. “It’s definitely been a frustrating year, but today made up for some of it. If my run really was a gamebreaker, then I loved doing it.”

Imagine how Friedgen, special teams coach Ray Rychleski and the hordes of Terps faithful must have felt about the longest punt return TD in Maryland bowl history.

The walloping victory virtually was a rerun of last season’s 30-3 axing of Tennessee in the Peach Bowl, causing Friedgen to complain, “If we keep winning bowl games, we’re going to need a bigger Hall of Fame for the trophies.” All coaches should have such problems.

Although Maryland remains a year or two and a few major victories away from joining college football’s truly elite, the Terps’ remarkable resurgence under alumnus Friedgen continues apace. The Fridge now has a 31-8 record, the most wins ever for an ACC coach in his first three seasons. All those mediocre years under Joe Krivak, Mark Duffner and Ron Vanderlinden seem far away now.

Surprisingly, considering West Virginia’s seven straight victories coming in, the Mountaineers rolled over this time even more embarrassingly than in College Park three months ago. In the first half, when the issue was pretty much decided, their supposedly potent offense ran like a 1985 Tercel — appropriately, perhaps, since Toyota now sponsors the Gator Bowl. Maryland returned to its locker room with a 15-3 edge in first downs and a 238-111 margin in yardage. By then, many Mountaineer partisans in the throng of 78,892 presumably were sobbing into their beer or moonshine in the parking lots.

The only West Virginian who escaped with any honor was former POW Jessica Lynch, who was driven onto the field and introduced before the opening kickoff. When Jessica’s Toyota left the premises, her fellow Mountaineers should have hitched a ride.

For most of the second half, the chief source of entertainment was listening to the mushmouth descriptions of infractions by referee Rogers Redding, who sounded as if he had been born somewhere south of Mississippi. By contrast, Maryland’s performance spoke clearly about how quickly and thoroughly Friedgen has restored pride and passion to its program.

You could say the Terps have a leg up on their football future. And so does Steve Suter.

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