- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 14, 2006

It was clear from the minute the Maryland football team’s schedule was finalized, a mid-September trip to West Virginia would be the first — and best — barometer for how the Terrapins would fare this season.

Would the Terps re-emerge as a bowl-worthy team with an impressive performance in a notoriously rowdy venue? Or would they mosey into Morgantown, get drilled by the defending Big East champions and squelch any grandiose hopes for a return to the 10-win seasons of the not-so-distant past just three games into the season?

It was a target for the Terps, an important test to prepare for through the spring and summer. Sure, there were two games preceding it, but a Thursday night date with a regional rival and burgeoning national power would catch anyone’s attention.

“I never overlook any team, but every day I looked at that game and said, ‘Wow, that’s going to be a big game, and it’s going to change our lives forever,’” sophomore receiver Isaiah Williams said.

Nothing has changed the initial assessment. The Terps are predictably 2-0 but learned little after defeats of a pair of overmatched teams. No. 5 West Virginia (2-0), which welcomes Maryland to Mountaineer Field tonight, remains a more accurate gauge to measure Maryland’s progress.

And the Terps know it.

“If we get this victory, it could be the turning point in our season,” junior tailback Keon Lattimore said. “A game like this can determine whether your season goes up or down. If we win, the morale of the team will be so high that I think we’ll just run the table.”

That’s strong talk for such an early game. Maryland will have finished only a quarter of its regular season after tonight and won’t even start ACC play until next week. But after two straight losing seasons, the Terps’ first chance to create an impression is clearly the most important.

There are parallels to 2001 — coach Ralph Friedgen’s first season at Maryland. Friedgen loves to invoke a defensive stand late on a crisp autumn evening at Georgia Tech as the point the Terps finally believed they should be mentioned as a reputable team. That victory came on a Thursday night on five days’ rest against a highly respected foe and was nationally televised.

“I don’t know when that moment is going to come for this team, but they’ve got to have that moment, and they have to win it,” Friedgen said. “I’m pulling for them, and I’m praying for them. We’ll just have to see what happens.”

The solution to Friedgen’s uncertainty might lie in how quickly the Terps’ offense can establish itself against the Mountaineers. Maryland didn’t try anything fancy in its first two games, allowing Lattimore and Lance Ball to dominate the carries while an inexperienced group of receivers was eased into action.

That plan could be scrapped tonight as the Terps try to keep the score manageable against the potent Mountaineers. Senior quarterback Sam Hollenbach has yet to commit a turnover this year, and a precise outing from him could keep West Virginia’s offense off the field. Of course, he also must deliver some touchdowns to help the Terps keep pace.

“The bottom line is you have to score, and it doesn’t take them a whole lot of time to do that,” Friedgen said.

The Mountaineers’ offense will force the Terps to play more disciplined than in their first two games. That is especially true of stopping sophomore tailback Steve Slaton, who often can make a defender regret floating out of position.

“Don’t let him to get to the corner or you might as well strike up the band,” senior cornerback Josh Wilson said.

Just add containing Slaton to the list of myriad variables that have yet to be defined about Maryland.

Everything from the Terps’ field goal kicking to their passing game seems to fall into that category.

When Friedgen wondered this week how redshirt freshman wideout Darrius Heyward-Bey would handle the crucible of a Thursday night game at a top-five team, he really could have been describing his entire team.

“How’s he going to perform when the lights come on in Morgantown?” Friedgen asked. “I don’t know that. You don’t know that.”

By the end of the night, that question finally will be answered about the Terps.

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