Maryland-Clemson Preview: Edsall and Terps Aim to Topple Undefeated Tigers

COLLEGE PARK, MD - SEPTEMBER 24: Head coach Randy Edsall of the Maryland Terrapins motions to the defense from the sidelines during the first quarter against the Temple Owls at Byrd Stadium on September 24, 2011 in College Park, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

What: Maryland and coach Randy Edsall try to be the first to do what Jimbo Fisher, Gene Chizik, and Frank Beamer could not: beat the 8th-ranked, 6-0 Clemson Tigers.

Where and When: Byrd Stadium, College Park, Md., 7:00 on Saturday

Where to Watch: ESPNU, WatchESPN.com; non-kosher streams will be posted in the GameThread

Spread: Clemson -8.5

Gameday Weather: 67 and sunny during the day; 50s and clear at gametime

Notes/Storylines:

  • Undefeated. You've probably heard it before, but Clemson is 6-0. They are one of just 13 undefeated teams left in the country, and unlike last week's opponent, they've faced a set of pretty formidable foes to get there, including three teams who were ranked when they faced the Tigers.
  • QB controversy. We've already discussed this at length, but Randy Edsall still isn't tipping his hand here. And why should he? It'll be extremely difficult for Clemson to adequately prepare for both C.J. Brown's spread look and Danny O'Brien's pro-style scheme. The one who gets the start, though, will have a huge impact on the outcome.
  • ACC implications. No, really. Maryland is technically still alive in the ACC race - they're 1-1, but are yet to play anyone from the Atlantic Division. A loss in this one would sink their meager hopes - it would mean Clemson would have to lose three more ACC games - while a win would give hope to the season, plus be a huge boost to Wake Forest's chances.
  • History: on Maryland's side. Maryland is 6-4 against Clemson over the past ten years, and surely you remember what happened the last time the Tigers came to College Park: 2-10 Maryland beat the ACC Atlantic champion Tigers.
  • It's homecoming! As I'm sure most of you know, Saturday is homecoming for the Terrapins. Whoever decided to make homecoming - traditionally a gimme win - a game against Clemson should probably lose their job, or something. Isn't homecoming supposed to be an easy win?
  • Injuries. Tajh Boyd will be good to go for Clemson, which should make things significantly tougher for the Terps' defense. On the other side, Maryland is still out five defensive starters, but perhaps more importantly Andrew Gonnella is out for the year. This is the first game Gonnella will miss, and it'll be intriguing to see how the talented but heavy Pete White fills in.

In a Turtleshell

Clemson offense vs. Maryland defense. Like Maryland, Clemson installed a new offensive coordinator and underwent an offensive facelift in the offseason. Unlike Maryland, the results have been unquestioningly positive.

Through Clemson's first six games, the Tigers check in at #18th nationally in total offense, second only to Georgia Tech in the ACC. Their passing offense has gone swimmingly, at 22nd nationally in total passing yards and 13th nationally in yards per attempt. The ground game has had a few struggles, but at upwards of 4 ypc, it's certainly nothing to be upset over. Most importantly, they're averaging 35 points per game, have lit up talented defenses like Virginia Tech (23 points) and Florida State (35), and are the biggest reason the Tigers are 6-0 and undefeated.

New offensive coordinator Chad Morris is a Gus Malzahn protege, and his offense bears some resemblance to the one that won Auburn the national title last season. The scheme is nicknamed the HUNH - the Hurry Up No Huddle - and it works more or less as the name indicates. As Shakin' the Southland described to us, it's designed to be up-tempo and keep the defense on its heels, tired, and unable to make substitutions. Like Crowton's scheme, the passing game is mostly short, though takes more downfield shots than Maryland does, and the running game is simple. Unsurprisingly, it's almost entirely shotgun-based. And yes, if Crowton runs his own scheme on Saturday, we'll likely have two dozen possessions for each team.

Three things really differentiate Clemson's dynamic scheme from Maryland's more tepid offense: quarterback play, big play potential, and, truthfully, overall talent. On the first mark: Tajh Boyd has been fantastic all year, with a QB rating of 160.22 - good for 15th nationally and 3rd in the ACC. He's accounted for a few big plays while avoiding major errors, throwing 15 touchdowns and only two interceptions. Meanwhile, the Tigers have been able to get big plays where the Terrapins haven't: their eight plays of 50 or more yards are tied for second-best in the country, a rarity for an offense that uses so much short game.

And let's face it: Clemson has more pure talent than Maryland's offense, and they've been able to use that for better execution across the board. While Maryland's offense doesn't have any major deficiencies, it also lacks the star power and explosiveness at the skill positions that Boyd, Andre Ellington, and former five-stars Mike Bellamy and Sammy Watkins provide.

Ellington, the starting running back, is the primary rusher along with QB Boyd; the ground game primarily revolves around the off-tackle runs and zone reads. Watkins is the best receiver on the team, with tight end Dwayne Allen and #2 wideout DeAndre Hopkins (aka Nuk) also getting their fair share of touches in the passing game.

On the other side of the ball, Maryland's defense has failed to impress this year, but is riding a high after shutting down Georgia Tech's high-octane attack. Unfortunately, Clemson's offense doesn't match up nicely with the Terrapins the way the Yellow Jackets' did. Unlike Tech, Clemson has a large offensive line, speeds up the game significantly, and most of all, relies much more on the passing game than they do the ground game.

As for the offensive line, the Tigers' OL measures up nearly 20 pounds heavier on average than the Yellow Jackets', which is a problem for the Terrapins' undersized, 270-pound-average starting defensive line. And Clemson's desire to push the tempo spells trouble for Maryland, too, which is A) already always playing, checking in at 3rd nationally in minutes on the field thanks to the Terps' offense's inability to hold the ball, and B) lacking depth, meaning that any stamina substitutions will lead to a decrease in quality.

Worst of all, to have a chance at keeping Clemson's offense pinned up, they'll have to improve play from their secondary: Maryland's passing defense has been porous this year, allowing nearly eight yards per attempt, a mark good for 96th nationally. Against a primarily passing team, that's an obvious cause for concern. I hate to be "that guy", but if there was ever a time to move Kenny Tate back to safety, it's now.

One area they may be able to take solace in is Clemson's offensive line, which has allowed fourteen sacks this year (compared to just four for Maryland). That's an opening for the Terps to bring the heat on Boyd and, with any luck, occasionally get to him, which could be hugely disruptive for a rhythm-based offense. Look out for David Mackall and Joe Vellano: the duo were the stars against GT, and will be asked to bring the pressure in a big way on Saturday.

Maryland offense vs. Clemson defense. You may remember Clemson's defense last year being somewhat of a marauding, maniacal bunch, a top-20 unit nationally featuring superstar defensive end Da'Quan Bowers - he of 15 sack productivity - future second-round defensive tackle Jarvis Jenkins, and first team all-ACC defensive back DeAndre McDaniel. All three of those guys are gone this year, however, along with another two starters, leaving the Tigers with a lot of important talent to replace.

And perhaps expectedly, they struggled with the adjustment early this season. The Tigers gave up nearly 500 yards to Troy in the season opener, followed by 27 points to FCS team Wofford, and, most recently, 30 points to a Florida State team quarterbacked by backup Clint Trickett in place of an injured E.J. Manuel. But things are getting better: they've been above-average in their past two games, limiting Virginia Tech's offense to three points in Lane Stadium and allowing only 14 against Boston College last week.

Statistically, Clemson's defense has been slightly better against the pass, though the fact that they've a few run-heavy teams, like Auburn and triple-option-based Wofford, may account for some of that. Either way, few teams have been able to throw the ball adequately against the Tigers, particularly recently: their two most recent opponents, VT and BC, combined to throw for only 257 yards against the Tigers. (Tech had 310 through the air against Miami, for comparison's sake.) Only one team has been able to really successfully move the ball through the air against Clemson, and that's Florida State. It's no surprise, either, that FSU did the most damage to their defense out of anyone all year, scoring 30 points and coming within a touchdown of the win.

But perhaps this space would be better used discussing Maryland's offense, which is in more than a little bit of a quandary. Again, we've already discussed Maryland's QB situation at length, but a quick rehash: the choice is between Danny O'Brien, undoubtedly talented but struggling in a big way, and C.J. Brown, an explosive athlete with a questionable arm and next to no experience. The kicker may be that Brown, not O'Brien, lets Gary Crowton do everything he wants to do offensively - the zone reads, the options, the rollouts - that O'Brien just doesn't have the legs to pull off.

Still, we legitimately have no idea which of the two will be the starter come Saturday at 7:00, and it just may happen that we don't until they take the field. What's really intriguing about that is that Maryland's gameplan will adjust dramatically based on which of the two gets the call; it'll either be the Crowtonian, almost Oregon-esque spread with Brown, or the Edsallian, Friedgen-esque pro-style with O'Brien. The question of which of the two Maryland will run can only work in their favor, hopefully robbing Clemson of the ability to adequately prepare for either scheme.

Or who knows? Maybe we'll see both of them. This game will go a long way to determining the short term direction of Maryland's offense, and maybe the long term, as well.

The good news for Maryland's offense: the Tigers are really vulnerable in the big-play department, having allowed 9 plays of 40 yards or more. The Terrapins have only had two of those this year, of course, but one of them came just last week on the legs of Brown. Chasing the big play may be a Catch-22 (Brown is more explosive, but would play in a scheme that has shown itself to be anti-big play; O'Brien's deep ball arm is better, but DOB has played poorly all year) but it might be a necessity for Maryland to really have a chance.

All in all, given that Clemson is averaging upwards of 4 yards per carry on the ground, I'm wondering if Maryland might choose to go run-heavy, keep the ball out of the Tigers' hands, rest their defense, give the ball to Davin Meggett a lot, and see what a run-based, Brown-led spread can do. But until we know more about which direction Edsall and Crowton want to take this offense, it's not going to do much good to keep on speculating.

Keys in Cliches

Control the ball. Morris' offensive HUNP scheme is designed to wear down a defense, and will do it just fine on its own, thank you very much. He doesn't need help from Maryland's offense going and committing silly, quick three-and-outs like they did against Tech. The Terrapins' D is already up against the wall in terms of depth as it is.

Pressure Boyd. Clemson's scheme, like most spread-based offenses, is rhythm-based, but they've shown themselves to be vulnerable to pressure on the QB. Given that Maryland's poor secondary isn't likely to stop Clemson's passing game entirely, if they can even slow them down at all, the Terrapins' best shot might be getting at Boyd early and often, relying heavily on Mackall and Vellano on that front.

Win the big little things. I said this last week, and it's again applicable. Let's face it: straight-up, Maryland isn't likely to outperform an undefeated, top-10 team. Most major stats - like, say, yards - will be going Clemson's way. If Maryland's going to have a real shot, they have to win the other things: turnovers, penalties, special teams, unforced errors. Turnovers and special teams lost the game for Maryland last week as much as anything else; it'd be a shame if it happened again.

Players to Watch

Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson. It's obvious, but Watkins is really good and the runaway front-runner for ACC Rookie of the Year. If you haven't been paying attention to the young explosive wide-out, get ready to be acquainted.

Brandon Thompson, DT, Clemson. The heir to the Clemson defensive star legacy, Thompson is almost a sure-fire first rounder come the NFL Draft in April. He's a star, and really opens things up for defensive end Andre Branch, who is leading the ACC in TFL and is a close second in sacks.

Pete White, G, Maryland. It's pretty weird to put an offensive lineman here, but let's be honest: White is going to have a big impact on this one. Maryland's least experienced, but perhaps most talented, offensive lineman will be getting his first real playing time of the season against one of the conference's best defensive lines. If he's not up to the task, it may not matter who the quarterback is.

Cameron Chism, CB, Maryland. The Terps' famed feast-or-famine cornerback, Chism has been through innumerable ups and downs since the start of last season. He'll be tested early and often come Saturday, likely matching up against the exciting-yet-inexperienced Watkins.

Prediction

Am I wrong if the Georgia Tech game actually gave me hope? I can't help but feel like, as ugly as it was at time, Maryland sort of found itself in that comeback. The defense, if nothing else, got itself a much-needed confidence boost, and I feel like the offense might've made some progress in the latter stages, too. So much of this will depend on who starts at quarterback that any sort of realistic prediction is bordering on a crapshoot. But I'll say this, and it should stay no matter who's under center: Maryland has shown with some measure of consistency that they tend to play to the level of their opposition, and they don't give up that easily. (Except for Temple, when they gave up before the game started.) While that's admirable, it often doesn't stand up in the face of superior talent.

More specifically, I'll go out on a limb and say that I expect Brown to get the start. Once you start this process of switching QBs, coaches tend to just rip the band-aid off and get it over with. If you ask me, it looks like the staff has their guy for the moment, and I don't think Edsall will play around. Brown will lead a few scoring drives and have at least two big running plays that make everyone oooh and ahhhh, and his arm will look a little better, though not half as good as DOB at his best. In the end, Maryland's offense will struggle on third downs too much, Clemson's offense has too much success through the air, and the Tigers win it by a little more than one score, 31-20.

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