Harris, WVU been waiting for this one

A little thing like a hamstring injury won't keep West Virginia senior Kay-Jay Harris from playing in the Game of the Year on Saturday against visiting Maryland.

"Listen," said Harris, the Mountaineers' gregarious and talented tailback. "I'm going to have a slumber party in the training room -- that's how long I plan to be in there. I'm sleeping there every night. Come on in. Bring your friends. I'm staying 'till they fix me up."

If you've surmised that the Maryland game means everything to Harris and the Mountaineers, you would be right. For one, No. 8 West Virginia has a score to settle with the Terrapins after getting humiliated the past three meetings, including losses of 34-7 and 41-7 (Gator Bowl) in 2003.

More importantly, this is a signature game for the Mountaineers (2-0), an opportunity to show the nation (ESPN2, Noon ET) that they are BCS title-game worthy.

No. 19 Maryland (2-0) could end up being the only ranked team the Mountaineers play this season, which means they must make their case to the pollsters in convincing fashion.

Harris, 6-foot-1, 235 pounds, is well aware of those facts.

"This is our over-the-hump game," said Harris, who expects the Mountaineer Field rowdies to be out in full force in an effort to intimidate a Maryland team making its first road appearance. "If we win, we can ride it to the Orange Bowl. And we've definitely had that sour taste in our mouths the last nine months since the Gator Bowl loss. ... We're going to burn the boats when we go into battle this time."

Burn the boats?

"It means we won't need them anymore," he said. "We'll be there to stay."

A healthy Harris could fortify a West Virginia running attack that ranks third nationally at 356.0 yards per game. Harris produced 337 of those yards on 25 carries in the Mountaineers' 56-23 season-opening victory over East Carolina, but managed just seven yards on two carries last week before leaving with the hamstring injury in a 45-20 win over Central Florida.

"I was so frustrated when I got hurt," said Harris, whose backup, Jason Colson, ran for 108 yards and a touchdown in his absence. "I'm sitting on the sideline, watching and thinking, 'I could run for 200 more yards in this one.' Now, I'm hungrier. I can't wait to get out there this week and show what I can do."

Asked if he's capable of surpassing his Big-East record rushing total of two weeks ago, Harris said, "why not?" He then asked sports information director Shelly Poe what the single-game NCAA rushing record is. She told him it was 406 yards, set by LaDainian Tomlinson of TCU in 2000.

"I could have had that the first game if I didn't come out with nine minutes left," he said. "That was one drive, two tops."

Harris is the elder statesman on the Mountaineers, a 25-year-old former minor-league baseball player who made his name on the Tampa playgrounds with a 42½ vertical leap and gravity-defying dunks. He and Houston Rockets star Tracy McGrady were high school rivals.

He's seen a lot, been through a lot. And he tries to be a steadying influence for his younger teammates.

"Whatever I can do to help," Harris said.

Harris realizes that quarterback Rasheed Marshall, who is coming off a 14-of-18, 225-yard effort against Central Florida, needs to overcome his 0-3 record against Maryland.

Marshall was outplayed by WVU transfer Scott McBrien last season in both meetings. Marshall threw for 112 combined yards; McBrien, who has graduated, threw for 601.

"Kay-Jay keeps all of us together," Colson said. "Just having a guy around like that makes it better for us."

Harris, like coach Rich Rodriguez, said the Mountaineers consider themselves major underdogs against a Maryland team that struggled in the opener against Northern Illinois (23-20), but easily handled Big East member Temple (45-22). They like that way, too.

"That makes us want it more," Harris said. "We have something to prove to these guys, to the country."

Joe Bendel covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.