- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Remnants of Hurricane Ivan are supposed to soak Mountaineer Field this weekend, and the West Virginia Mountaineers would be happy to see the downpour wash away their record of football failure against Maryland.

The seventh-ranked Mountaineers have been picked by some to win the Big East championship and gain the depleted conference’s automatic BCS bowl bid. But for West Virginia to truly be considered a legitimate power, it must find a way to stop the carnage inflicted lately by the Terrapins.

“I’ve done everything but hire a voodoo doctor and a psychiatrist to try to figure it out mentally,” said West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez, who has been on the humiliating side of the lopsided series. “It’s been on our minds. It’s all anybody asked about in the offseason: ‘How are you going to do against Maryland this year? Are you going to beat Maryland this year?’”

Maryland has won all four meeting in Rodriguez’s three seasons — by a combined 151-53 margin. Last season the Terps pummeled the Mountaineers 34-7 in the regular season and 41-7 in the Gator Bowl.

It is hard to imagine a bigger game this season for West Virginia. The Terps are the only ranked opponent for the Mountaineers, whose Big East schedule has weakened considerably with dominant program Miami now playing in the ACC. The Mountaineers will have a real shot at an undefeated season if they survive Saturday.

“I don’t want to put too much pressure on [the players],” said Rodriguez, whose team had won seven straight before the bowl bashing. “I don’t want to make it a ‘make or break game’ … It’s just one of 11.”

Rodriguez can try, but he can’t disguise that this is The Game if West Virginia is to be taken seriously as a top 10 squad with national title aspirations.

The Mountaineers still could win the conference and a BCS bid if they lose, but they widely would be considered a fraud whose success came due to mediocre competition. And besides, West Virginia — which technically was a conference co-champion of the Big East last season, with its only league loss at Miami — already has let it be known it plans to replace the Hurricanes as the new beast of the Big East.

“I would like to see if we can prove to be the top dog,” Rodriguez said. “Last year Miami and our dogs were in the same pen, so to speak, and sharing the same bone.”

It is unclear why Maryland has owned the rivalry recently. Some feel Terps coach Ralph Friedgen has simply outwitted his counterpart, and the Terps have psyched out the Mountaineers.

“For whatever reason, mentally, when we’ve gotten behind them, something happens,” Rodriguez said. “When we got behind [in the Gator Bowl], I don’t want to say we shut it down, but we weren’t able to battle back and get into the game.”

The West Virginia coach suggested the Terps have had more size on the lines and superior talent overall. However, it was the same Mountaineers who nearly upset Miami in South Florida, where the then second-ranked Hurricanes needed a miraculous catch by Kellen Winslow II on fourth-and-13 late in the fourth quarter to set up the winning field goal.

And the same group easily handled highly ranked teams Virginia Tech (which also left for the ACC) and Pitt — wins that have allowed the Mountaineers to proclaim themselves the new king in the shrunken Big East.

“Last I looked, we beat Virginia Tech the last two years. That was nothing,” said West Virginia senior linebacker Adam Lehnortt, whose team hammered the Hokies 28-7 last season. “And then Miami, they got away with one. As far as I am concerned, I don’t know if we are getting the respect we deserve.”

That question could be answered Saturday.

The Mountaineers, who seem to have most of the advantages, are a 61/2-point favorite over the Terps. They have a third-year starting quarterback in dual-threat Rasheed Marshall, a senior responsible for 51 career touchdowns (31 passing, 20 rushing). Maryland quarterback Joel Statham will make his third career start, replacing now-departed Mountaineers tamer Scott McBrien.

“It’s a new year,” said Marshall, who threw for a total of 112 yards with no touchdowns against Maryland last season. “We just have to try to stay positive. Erase the past.”

The Mountaineers have returning Big East Rookie of the Year Chris Henry, a receiver averaging 16.3 yards over his 11 catches and three touchdowns. The entire offensive line is back.

Tailback Kay-Jay Harris, who set a Big East rushing record with 337 yards in the season opener against East Carolina, is questionable with a hamstring injury. However, tailback Jason Colson filled in ably with 108 yards rushing in last week’s 45-20 win over Central Florida.

The defense is well-seasoned despite the loss of All-American linebacker Grant Wiley. Lehnortt and fellow senior Scott Gyorko should keep the position strong. The entire line is back and cornerback Adam “Pac-Man” Jones is a shutdown specialist and dangerous return man.

The parts seem to add up to Morgantown being a hot spot on college football’s map.

“It is more the bull’s-eye is on you,” Rodriguez said of the expectations and accompanying hype. “I want us to be that. Any coach who doesn’t want that on their program is not prepared or not ready to have success, because this is where we want to get to.”

And to get there, the Mountaineers must climb over Maryland.

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