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A rivalry renewed: The history behind the Maryland-West Virginia matchup

Maryland and West Virginia will play for the first time since 2015 on Saturday to kick off the 2021 season.

Courtesy of the Baltimore Sun

It was December of 2003 and Maryland football quarterback Scott McBrien found himself at a nearly empty restaurant in Jacksonville, Florida after practice. He was accompanied by wide receiver Steve Suter, wide receiver Jafar Williams and running back Bruce Perry, all integral parts of the 2003 Terps offense.

In just a few days, Maryland would take on West Virginia for the third time that season in the New Year’s Day Gator Bowl.

Thirty minutes into the dinner that the soon-to-be Gator Bowl champs were enjoying, the floodgates opened. Some type of pep rally event was taking place nearby and, in what seemed like an instant, roughly 200 West Virginia fans came through the door.

McBrien couldn’t go anywhere without West Virginia fans recognizing him, as he was a former Mountaineers quarterback who transferred when the coaching staff in Morgantown, West Virginia was overhauled, essentially securing him a spot on the bench.

Within minutes of the West Virginia fans filling the restaurant and suffocating the four athletes wearing Maryland colors, a chant erupted.

“Rasheed Marshall, Rasheed Marshall, Rasheed Marshall,” the raucous West Virginia fans screamed, a clear shot at McBrien as Marshall was the starting quarterback for West Virginia at the time.

McBrien remembers thinking, “Oh shit, here we go.”

While McBrien bore the brunt of the trash-talking, his teammates also had a disdain for West Virginia through a rivalry that ran deep and a game with heightened intensity. Plus, McBrien was their quarterback.

Suter stood up in the booth and let the chanting crowd of hundreds know they weren’t going anywhere, and if anyone had something to say, they could come say it. According to Suter, the loud, obnoxious Mountaineer fans went silent after that warning.

McBrien and the rest of the Terps left the bar with nothing escalating any further. A few days later, Maryland annihilated West Virginia, 41-7, with McBrien throwing for a career-high 381 yards against his old school.

This Saturday, one of the fiercest, genuine rivalries in college football history that spanned decades will resume after a six-year hiatus when the Mountaineers head to College Park, Maryland to kick off the 2021 season.

The fights on the field and in the stands, the big hits, the recruiting battles, the bus rides and the electric stadium atmospheres made these two opponents’ worthy adversaries for years. The fans and players harbored both a genuine hatred and mutual respect for the toughness that was displayed when the yellow and blue collided with the red and white.

Perhaps no Maryland teams exemplified the competitiveness and physical play that existed when these two teams met up than the Terp teams of the early 2000s.

“The big years [for the rivalry] was 2001, two and three,” said Johnny Holliday, the longtime radio voice of Maryland sports. “Those were the years that 50,000 people were in Byrd Stadium and there’s no reason why we can’t do that again.”

Various factors led to this legendary rivalry, dating back to the first time the teams met in 1949. For starters, proximity played a role. Both fan bases always made sure to make the roughly three-hour drive, whether to Morgantown or College Park, establishing a presence that could be felt in the away stadium.

McBrien remembers the first time he returned to Morgantown after transferring out of the program. It was a sold-out, unruly crowd. McBrien was usually one of the last ones to come out of the tunnel, but not on this Saturday.

“Steve Suter and Rich Parson wanted me to run out of the tunnel. They wanted me to lead them out of the tunnel and they wanted to stand behind me as if like, ‘Look, we got your back.’” McBrien recalled. “For them to bring me up to the front of the line and say, ‘Look, you lead us on the field, we’re behind you.’ That was a cool moment for me.”

Maryland won that game 48-17, and McBrien threw for 162 yards and one touchdown.

Shawne Merriman, a Maryland linebacker from 2002-04 and a first-round NFL Draft pick by the San Diego Chargers, will never forget the bus rides they endured in Morgantown. He remembers kids sitting on top of crates and trash cans, giving the Maryland bus the middle finger as they drove into the stadium.

One year, some West Virginia fan dressed up as Ralph Friedgen, the Maryland head coach from 2000-10. He wore the same hat, same shirt and put pillows under his shirt to enlarge his stomach. The absurdity of this fan didn't stop there. He started to chase the bus and throw things at it as the Maryland players glared at him from inside the vehicle.

“It’s next level, because the fans and students, they’re rowdy,” Merriman said. “Playing them, man, you felt it, it felt like a different week than playing anyone else.”

Another dynamic in the rivalry was the recruiting clashes. Because of how close the schools are, coaching staffs were constantly competing to lure the same kids to play at their university. Many of the athletes that were recruited by both programs knew each other from previous playing days.

A lot of them had either played against each other or as teammates in high school, which added a little extra oomph to the matchup when they played each other at the next level. And when a kid chose one of these schools over the other, well, let’s just say that didn’t sit well with the fans of the other team.

“There was always extra motivation from a recruiting standpoint because we’re all in the same bed,” Perry, the running back on those early 2000s teams, said. “We always knew going into those games it was going to be extremely physical. You were going to have to bring your lunchbox for four quarters.”

While there was certainly a desire to win, and win big, there was also a certain level of respect for the grit the teams displayed on the field.

When the two teams met in 2001, Perry rushed for 153 yards and one touchdown on 31 attempts, but there was one play that stood out to him.

Perry was handed the ball and broke up the middle. He got caught and a defender latched on to him, almost taking him down. However, Perry carried the defensive back on his back for an additional six yards. When Perry was finally taken down, he remembers the defensive back saying “Ah, good shit.”

“There was always a bunch of trash being talked, but at the same time a mutual respect,” Perry said. “Maryland was not a pushover. You were coming in to get the shit kicked out of you.”

Suter, who was the primary punt returner for the Terps, had a rule with himself to never fair catch a punt.

In a regular-season matchup against West Virginia, Mountaineers defensive back Adam “Pacman” Jones was racing down the sideline getting ready to nail Suter on the catch. Suter heard his teammates yelling to fair catch the ball, but he refused.

Jones speared Suter on the top of his chin as he looked up to catch the ball. Jones was flagged for the play. Suter was supposed to be in the next offensive series. The only problem was he couldn’t see after the ferocious hit and told the coaches he couldn’t go back in.

“I’m still seeing blue and yellow,” Suter now recalls.

Eventually, Suter was good to go back in the game and the next time West Virginia punted, Suter made sure he was going to catch that punt. The punt sailed out of bounds, but Suter ran to the Mountaineer sideline and caught the ball out of bounds, just to make a point that he was still there, and they would need a little more than a chin strike to knock him out of this game.

“That was the mentality that we had against them. I was going to do anything in my power to gain any type of mental warfare,” Suter said.

The new generation of Terps players and fans may not truly understand what the border-state rivalry meant to either program as the teams haven’t faced off since 2015. But to the people involved in the old battles between these two teams, it wasn’t just an ordinary Saturday game day.

Current head coach Mike Locksley was a part of those early 2000s Maryland teams as a running backs coach and recruiting coordinator from 1997-2002. So, he knows what this rivalry means to the alumni and to the history of the program, even though he’s telling his guys to play and prepare like every other game.

“Coaching under Ralph Friedgen here, this was one of those games where the hair would be up on the back of his neck because he really didn’t like those guys,” Locksley said.

Holliday, who has broadcast dozens of Maryland-West Virginia matchups and will be on the call this Saturday, wouldn’t mind seeing this “natural rivalry” be reinstated with a game every year.

“Our fans are just as good as their fans down there,” Holliday said. “Our fans aren’t maybe as rambunctious as some of their fans have been, but it’s a great scene on game day down there as it is on game day right here.”

Since the 2004 Gator Bowl victory, Maryland has had little success against the Mountaineers. They have played 10 times since that New Year’s Day bowl game and West Virginia has won nine of those games, including a 2015, 45-6, beatdown in Morgantown the last time the rivals met.

“Locksley’s been talking about we lost the last nine out of 10, so that’s not how you ever want to go into a rivalry,” senior defensive back Jordan Mosley said. “But this should be a nice rivalry and it should get reignited after this season.”

Locksley brought in Suter to speak to the team last week. Suter understands it’s hard to make someone feel the way you feel and that most of the current players don’t have any emotional investment in the rivalry.

“I can’t force you guys to feel the way I feel about them because I have personal experience. All I can say is, I just need you to beat them,” Suter told the players.

McBrien, who never lost to West Virginia after leaving the program for Maryland, sent Locksley a text earlier this week. It read, “Hey man, it’s West Virginia week. Let’s go get them.”

McBrien and the rest of the former Terps sitting in that restaurant in Jacksonville will certainly be watching, hoping, and rooting for the Terps to take down their old-time rival and get off to a strong start this season.