By Mickey Furfari
MORGANTOWN — West Virginia and Maryland are poised for one of their traditionally tough, powerfully physical clashes here tonight.
It shapes up as the first real challenge of the year for both of these border-state rivals after comparatively easy 2-0 starts.
Adding significance to this 45th confrontation is the fact the series is even at 21-21-2. The fifth-ranked Mountaineers swept the last two meetings to forge the deadlock.
“We’ve done pretty well in overtime in the past, so, hopefully, it will carry over to this tie-breaker,” said Jeremy Sheffey, WVU’s all-Big East offensive guard.
Quinton Andrews, the starting free safety, said the Mountaineers get pumped up especially for night games. And it shows in the records.
“It’s always a great atmosphere with a full house, and (in mid-week) we’re the only game on TV,” Andrews noted. “So everyone is going to want to show what they can do with millions watching.”
WVU has won 16 of 20 night games under sixth-year coach Rich Rodriguez, including eight victories in a row at home dating back to 2001.
A capacity crowd of 60,000 is expected for the 7:49 p.m. kickoff at Mountaineer Field/Milan Puskar Stadium. Showers are in the forecast for the day, with the temperature falling from a high of 73.
ESPN will televise the game nationally.
The oddsmakers have listed West Virginia as the clear-cut favorite. The line ranges between 14 1/2 and 17 1/2 points.
Tailback Steve Slaton isn’t the only Mountaineer who’s eager to show Maryland what it missed out on. Fullback Owen Schmitt also harbors a similar sentiment.
Coach Ralph Friedgen withdrew a scholarship offer to Slaton, who had committed verbally to Maryland, because it had recruited too many running backs that year.
Friedgen’s staff also showed a lack of interest in Schmitt, a junior from Fairfax, Va., who grew up watching Maryland teams play.
Slaton, a sophomore, had yet to carry the ball when the teams met last season. But Schmitt showed what he could do with a game-high 80 yards on just six rushes in a 31-19 win over the Terps.
“Night games are always fun,” Schmitt said. “There’s a lot of excitement and the place is going to be pretty rowdy.
“Maryland is a good team. (The Terps) will bring it to you. We’ve got to play hard.”
Rodriguez has urged his team to execute plays efficiently, take care of the ball on offense and play smart. He also hopes the defense can begin to force some turnovers.
Friedgen, who’s 4-2 against WVU, is content with his team’s wins over Division I-AA William & Mary and Middle Tennessee State.
But he said, “Did we play to the level of our opponent or are we better? I think we’re better. In fact, I know we’re better.
“We’ll find out Thursday night just where we’re at.”
Rodriguez is awed at the tremendous size of the Terps on both sides of the ball. He thinks those heavyweights move well, nonetheless.
Maryland quarterback Sam Hollenbach has completed 20 of 30 passes for 292 yards in the two games. He threw for 291 yards on 20 of 31 against WVU a year ago.
“Hollenbach runs around pretty good,” Rodriguez said. “They run some option plays with him. He’s not a stationary target.”
Wideout Danny Oquendo (5-70), tight end Joey Haynos (4-87) and wideout Iasiah Williams (4-78) are the Terps’ leading receivers.
Tailback Keon Lattimore has rushed 26 times for a net 175 yards and tailback Lance Ball 29 for 144 yards and four touchdowns.
Linebackers Wesley Jefferson (18), Erin Henderson (12) and cornerback Josh Wilson (12) are the top tacklers.
Slaton and quarterback Patrick White were pulled early from WVU’s 52-3 rout of Eastern Washington last Saturday.
“I’m looking forward to this game because it’s going to be our first real test of the season,” Slaton said.
“We all came here to play football, so we’re all excited and ready to go.”
He has rushed 41 times for a net 308 yards and four TDs.
White has completed 14 of 18 passes for 216 yards and two scores. He also has netted 70 yards rushing on nine keeper plays.
“We look at our season as 12 rounds and this is the third round,” White said. “We’ve had pretty good success with night games.”
Wideout Brandon Myles has caught seven passes for 73 yards and three touchdowns. Schmitt, who shows 55 yards rushing, has four pass receptions for 64 yards.
Rodriguez regards him as a key cog in the high-powered offense which has amassed 61 first downs and is averaging 538 yards per game.
Linebacker Kevin “Boo” McLee is WVU’s leading tackler with 13. Andrews has both of the team’s interceptions.
Maryland is averaging 25.5 points and 320 yards in total offense. It’s allowing 12 points and 315.5 yards.
WVU opens the road portion of its schedule Saturday, Sept. 23, at East Carolina. Maryland is host to Florida International that day.