- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 5, 2004

Ralph Friedgen’s teams have only lost once at Byrd Stadium, so when the Fridge says “nobody beats us in our house,” he is not just spouting some Madison Avenue line. He has come to expect victory, and so have the Maryland fans who filled the stadium last night for the opener against Northern Illinois.

So when the Terps’ opening drive resulted in a 1-yard loss, and their next possession ended with a fumble, the 51,830 Fridge faithful seemed a little uneasy as if they wanted to boo, particularly since this was the same Northern Illinois team that stunned the Terps last year in the Midwest cornfields 20-13. But they didn’t, because obviously nobody boos Fridge’s team in his house.

Maryland eventually was able to calm those nerves in the stands and sent the sea of red back to their homes with a 23-20 win. It was hardly a glorious victory. Maryland quarterback Joel Statham’s fumble with five minutes left stunned the house as the Huskies’ Jason Hawkins ran it back 85 yards for a touchdown, and the game wasn’t decided until Northern Illinois quarterback Phil Horvath’s final pass fell incomplete near the end zone as time ran out.

But given the Terps’ recent history of stepping on their tails coming out of the box only to finish strong, winning this game will be important later on, when the Terps have to play Clemson, Virginia and Virginia Tech in their houses, and Florida State at home from Oct.30 to Nov.18. Going into those four games without a loss early in the season will give Maryland a degree of comfort it will need — a strong foundation for the house.

Only one Maryland unit came out with the idea in mind of protecting Fridge’s Under Armour pledge. The defense played with the notion that nobody beats us in our house, not even our own offense. Statham, suffering from a bad case of the debut jitters, seemed to be a bit confused early on, apparently thinking one of the options in the option play was to toss the ball on the ground. He did so twice in the first quarter, one time in his own end zone that resulted in a safety giving Northern Illinois a 2-0 lead.

But while the Huskies’ defense put two points on the board, the Terps’ own defense gave the Huskies little option once they had the ball. Defensive end Shawne Merriman had two sacks and stuffed several Northern Illinois runs, as did Chris Kelley — the former quarterback. The former Seneca Valley High School passing star, in his final season at College Park, played strong safety last night as if he were taking out all his frustration over his hard-luck career at Maryland, missing out on his dream to be the Maryland quarterback because of a series of knee injuries.

Kelley was all over the field chasing down Huskies runners, and recorded his first career tackle for a loss when he brought down tailback Adrian Davis 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage as the second quarter opened, and he quickly made it two career tackles for a loss when he came across the field to drop A.J. Harris for a 1-yard loss on the same drive.

Terps linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, a worthy successor to All-American linebacker E.J. Henderson, intercepted a Horvath pass — Jackson’s second interception of the game — and brought the ball all the way to the Huskies’ 10, but the run was called back because of a personal foul against the Terps. Still, taking over at their own 34, Statham, who began playing under some control, got the Terps into scoring position on a 39-yard pass to tight end Vernon Davis — who has a photo of himself and another photo of Kellen Winslow Jr. in his locker with the words Davis wrote, “Who’s better?” With three catches for 52 yards in the first half, Davis was serving notice that it will be a question worth asking as the season goes on.

The Terps’ pattern under Fridge of getting better as the season goes on may be even more pronounced this season because he has such a young team — 30 true freshmen and a total of 38 players with four years or more of eligibility — led by sophomore quarterback Statham.

“We made some mistakes, but I knew that was going to happen,” Friedgen said. “I knew that was going to happen. What we need to see now is who will learn from those mistakes and how will we grow?”

They will make mistakes, but if they can do so and learn — and still win, like they did last night — by the time the meat of the schedule arrives, the new Maryland slogan could be “nobody beats us in their house either.”

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