- The Washington Times - Monday, September 6, 2004

Maryland quarterback Joel Statham only could laugh after his third fumble in the first quarter. That’s when the Terrapins knew they would be all right.

“Joel said, ‘It couldn’t be any worse than that, so let’s just go play football,’” center Kyle Schmitt said. “He’s not the type who’s going to get down and mope on the sidelines.”

The No. 23 Terps turned the ball over three times against Northern Illinois but escaped with a 23-20 victory Saturday. Statham handed Northern Illinois 10 points on two of his three fumbles, resulting in a touchdown and safety, but also delivered a handful of big plays in the second half.

The first-time starter expected to be nervous; that laugh, which used to bother coach Ralph Friedgen, is Statham’s way of handling stress. But Statham wasn’t the only rattled Terp. Friedgen knew his youngest team in his four seasons at Maryland would make mistakes, and the offense committed 18 mental errors alone against the Huskies. The upside, of course, was that the Terps avoided losing their opener for the third straight year.

“This is a work in progress,” Friedgen said yesterday. “It’s not going to happen overnight. We have to grow from this. We see we have some talent on this team, and I’m very optimistic once we get these mistakes corrected the kids’ confidence will increase. They did a lot of good things. I’m hoping they’ll feel good about themselves.”

Certainly, there were plenty of Maryland highlights. Running backs Josh Allen and Sam Maldonado combined for 186 yards and two touchdowns. Tight end Vernon Davis’ five receptions matched his total from all of last season. Linebacker D’Qwell Jackson’s two interceptions led to 10 points, while defensive end Shawne Merriman made 10 tackles. The battered defensive line held the Huskies to 3.1 yards a carry, while the new offensive line’s right side held up well.

The biggest positive, however, was thwarting Northern Illinois’ challenge, which lasted until the final seconds ticked off the clock. Maryland blew a late lead last year against the Huskies and lost 20-13 in overtime. This time, the Terps remained composed even though they wasted several chances to seal the victory. It was a telling moment for a team with 38 players who never had played a college game before Saturday night.

“It was a whole different atmosphere on our sideline [compared to] a very similar scenario last year,” Friedgen said. “Last year was a bit of a panic situation, and this year was more determination.”

Said Jackson: “It was like, ‘Here we go. Let’s crank it up.’”

Statham fumbled twice on the option, a play that averaged 10 yards each time the Terps ran it last season. One of those resulted in the safety, while the other fooled the Huskies and might have gone for a long Terps touchdown had the pitch reached Maldonado. Friedgen never considered benching Statham, who didn’t botch two pitchouts the entire summer.

“We’re calling the option because it’s one of his strengths,” Friedgen said. “If he pitched the ball well to Sammy, it would have been a touchdown. He said, ‘I’ll be OK, coach.’ Give him credit. He came back. A lot of guys would have packed it in. It’s pretty lonely out there. Joel showed me some stuff. I thought he made some plays, too. Hopefully, next time he’ll be more confident. It was definitely a growing experience for him.”

Statham completed 12 of 22 passes for 169 yards and one interception. Except for the fumbles, the numbers weren’t all that dissimilar from the ones predecessor Scott McBrien regularly produced last season. Friedgen even said Statham was more composed in his debut than McBrien was in his 2002 opener, a 22-0 loss to Notre Dame.

“I have to be a lot more consistent,” Statham said. “I have to master the offense better. I have to make the right calls and know what they’re going to bring at me.”

The next five games should provide Statham with several more chances to get it right before the Terps begin a tough, four-game stretch. Maryland (1-0) plays Temple (0-1) on Saturday and Duke (0-1) on Sept.25. The biggest challenge in the opening six weeks will be a road game against No.10 West Virginia (1-0) on Sept.18, though Friedgen is 4-0 against the Mountaineers.

“It’s very important that we grow early in the season with the [schedule] we have coming up later in the season,” Friedgen said.

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