- The Washington Times - Monday, September 27, 2004

Maryland is taking a break, but not a breather.

The Terrapins’ schedule, somewhat favorable thus far, becomes more difficult in the coming weeks and the host of mistakes the No.24 Terps frequently committed against softer teams cannot continue.

Quarterback Joel Statham’s turnovers — he threw three interceptions in the 55-21 victory over Duke on Saturday — have to stop, as do the dropped passes that cost the Terps two sure touchdowns against the Blue Devils. And the poor kickoff coverage that permitted a 94-yard touchdown against Duke must improve.

“I don’t think we’re anywhere near our potential yet,” coach Ralph Friedgen said yesterday.

Maryland (3-1, 1-0 ACC) gets its first of two breaks on Saturday before facing a “Murderer’s Row” schedule that Friedgen knows could quickly end his team’s bowl chances. The Terps play host to Georgia Tech (2-1, 1-1) on Oct.9 and N.C. State (2-1, 1-0) on Oct.16. Those games should factor into Maryland’s bowl prospects given the three teams probably will finish near each other in the ACC standings.

But that’s not even the harshest part of the schedule. Maryland then plays three of four on the road: Clemson (1-3, 1-2) on Oct.23, No.12 Virginia (4-0, 1-0) on Nov.6 and Virginia Tech (2-2, 1-1) on Nov.18. The only home game is No.9 Florida State (2-1, 1-0) on Oct.30, but the Seminoles have won all 14 games against the Terps.

Only a 19-16 overtime loss at No.6 West Virginia has kept Maryland from a 4-0 start, but victories over hapless Temple (1-3) and Duke (0-4) plus a 23-20 squeaker over Northern Illinois (2-2) have tempered optimism.

Traditionally under Friedgen, Maryland seems to improve as the season progresses. Maryland recovered from an 0-2 start last season and finished 10-3 including a Gator Bowl victory. The Terps were 1-2 in 2002 before taking 10 of the last 11 including the Peach Bowl.

Statham is Maryland’s key to surviving the next six games. At times, the sophomore shows why he has earned Friedgen’s support — he threw for four touchdowns and 362 yards against Duke. However, there are other times when his mistakes kill drives. Against Duke, Statham was intercepted three times, and one was returned for a touchdown that gave the Blue Devils a 21-17 lead.

“We have to eliminate the turnovers and fumbles,” Friedgen said. “Other than that, he had a very good game. He made a lot of plays, showed a lot of poise in the pocket, made a lot of good reads and throws. I think he’s growing as a quarterback. He just has to eliminate his mistakes. As he does that, you’ll see better things.”

Entering the season, Friedgen knew Statham would try too hard to beat coverages and force throws instead of smartly tossing the ball away. The quarterback was intercepted in the back of Duke’s end zone when all of his receivers were covered.

“I made a stupid mistake,” Statham said. “I didn’t just throw the ball away. It’s one of those things I’m learning right now.”

However, Friedgen also expected great things from Statham and his quarterback is showing marked improvement. There is still two-thirds of the season remaining and plenty of time for growth from Statham. Some Terps already see it.

“Joel didn’t get frustrated,” said tight end Vernon Davis of Statham’s interceptions and three fumbles (the Terps recovered all of them). “Other times he would get frustrated and down on himself.”

Perhaps the Terps’ greatest fear is having Statham wilt under the pressure. He admitted he had “jitters” earlier this season and last week Friedgen barred the media from Statham for a few days to ease the distractions. Despite incessant debate by Terps fans on Internet chatboards about playing backup Jordan Steffy, Statham’s teammates say he clearly is the No.1 quarterback.

“That’s how it’s going to be,” center Kyle Schmitt said. “Joel’s our guy so I don’t want him looking over his shoulder or listening to everybody else. He just has to go out and make throws and lead us.”

Note — Maryland slipped one slot in the Associated Press poll despite the 34-point victory. … The Terps will have a full practice only on Thursday with two other one-hour light sessions this week. … Offensive tackle Lou Lombardo and kicker Nick Novak suffered sprained thumbs, but are expected to play against Georgia Tech.

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