Maryland in a new league for ambition


COLLEGE PARK - Two years ago, when Ralph Friedgen was about to begin his first season as Maryland's football coach, he asked his players to write down what they thought the team's goals should be for the 2001 season.

What they gave back to Friedgen showed him just how low expectations were in College Park after five straight losing seasons.

"They said their goal was to win six games and finish third in the ACC," Friedgen said. "I was almost embarrassed to hang them up."

Fast forward to 2003, and it's easy to see how dramatically things have changed. Maryland opens its season tonight on the road against Northern Illinois ranked 15th in the country, and this year Friedgen leads a confident, talented, veteran group of players who have left modest goals far behind.

"We want to win the ACC, we want to have a perfect season and we want to have some hope for a national championship," said wide receiver Latrez Harrison. "That's pretty good compared to a few years ago when we were hoping to go to the Hawaii Bowl, which was like the worst bowl game for our conference."

But, with great aspirations also come great expectations. Once talk of undefeated seasons starts getting thrown around, the pressure to deliver can make anything less seem like a disappointment.

"The question is, have we arrived or do we expect to go further?" Friedgen said. "I expect to go further. That's just my mind-set. I think our team does, too, but we'll have to see."

Northern Illinois will be a good indication of Maryland's readiness. If the Terps make the mistake of looking ahead to next week's game with Florida State, an upset could easily be in the making. The Huskies have been picked by most pundits to win the Mid-American Conference, and nearly defeated then-No. 22 Wisconsin last season.

Northern Illinois features one of the nation's most prolific rushers in senior Michael Turner. In 2002, Turner was second in the NCAA in rushing with 1,915 yards, and this season, NIU is marketing him as a Heisman Trophy contender, devoting six pages to Turner in its media guide, in addition to creating a Web site for him:

"He's a strong, tough runner," said Maryland nose tackle C.J. Feldheim. "He breaks a lot of tackles and, if you leave a hole open, he's going to find it. It's going to be a challenge for us."

Defensively, Maryland returns nine starters from a unit that finished seventh nationally in points allowed. Though the Terps lost All-America linebacker E.J. Henderson to graduation, they return one of the best secondaries in the country, led by All-ACC cornerback Domonique Foxworth and free safety Madieu Williams.

Offensively, Maryland struggled early last season, but came on once quarterback Scott McBrien got comfortable running Friedgen's complex system. This year, McBrien was having an impressive preseason until he strained a groin muscle that kept him out of practice for the better part of a week.

McBrien said he'll play tonight, but just how effective he'll be remains to be seen. "It's funny, with a groin [injury] you can run backward and forward all you want, but that lateral movement is what's tough," he said. "I'll be ready. I've been waiting for this game for a long time."

Injuries have hampered Maryland this preseason. Starters Bruce Perry (ankle), Lamar Bryant (broken foot) and Steve Suter (hamstring) are expected to miss tonight's game, thrusting understudies into prominent roles.

None of them will be in the spotlight more than running back Josh Allen, who will fill in for Perry, the ACC Offensive Player of the Year in 2001. As a freshman last year, Allen shined in a limited role, running for 405 yards on just 60 carries.

"I have a lot of faith in Josh Allen," Friedgen said. "He's a good back and a good kid."

Maryland players are quick to acknowledge that this team has more talent than the two teams that won a total of 21 games the previous two years, but also realize that that counts for little entering this season.

"People think we're not for real yet, and that's fine," Harrison said. "People want to play Maryland, just tell them to get in line. We'll play whomever is next."

Terps tonight

Matchup: No. 15 Maryland vs. Northern Illinois in season opener for both teams

Site: Huskie Stadium, DeKalb, Ill.

Time: 7:35

TV/Radio: CN8/WBAL (1090 AM)

Line: Maryland by 8 1/2

Tonight's game

No. 15 Maryland (0-0)

at Northern Illinois (0-0)

Site: Huskie Stadium, DeKalb, Ill.

Time: 7:35

TV/Radio: CN8/WBAL (1090 AM)

Line: Maryland by 8 1/2

Series: Maryland leads 1-0

Last meeting: Maryland defeated Northern Illinois, 30-6, in 1996 in College Park.

* Maryland offense vs. Northern Illinois defense: Maryland quarterback Scott McBrien is the key. He's been nursing a strained groin muscle this week but should be 100 percent by game time. If he can move around, Terps receivers Jafar Williams, Latrez Harrison, Rich Parsons and Jo Jo Walker could have big games. Last year, Maryland's offense set a school record for points, and it should be even better this year despite being without Bruce Perry (ankle) for the opener. The Huskies didn't have much luck stopping teams last season, giving up more than 250 yards per game in the air in 2002. Northern Illinois' Randee Drew (seven interceptions last year) is a potential All-American at cornerback, but could have his hands full with an improved Maryland passing attack.

* Maryland defense vs. Northern Illinois offense: The Terps must deal with one of the country's premier running backs, senior Michael Turner. Last season, Turner ran for 1,915 yards (second most in the NCAA), including 160 against then-No. 22 Wisconsin. The Terps counter up front with defensive lineman Randy Starks, who has the potential to be one of the best in the nation, and C.J. Feldheim, a fifth-year senior still recovering from knee surgery this preseason. The Huskies like to use play-action passes, which will force quarterback Josh Haldi to try to beat one of the nation's best secondaries.

* Special teams: Maryland punt returner Steve Suter returned four kicks for touchdowns in 2002, but he won't play because of a hamstring injury. Parsons and Walker will try to fill the void. For the Huskies, Drew ranked 15th in the nation last year in kickoff returns (26.1) and is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. Maryland junior kicker Nick Novak (24 of 28 field-goal attempts) needs 95 points to pass Jess Atkinson (1981-84) as the Terps' all-time leading scorer.

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