Maryland-Georgia Tech Preview: Terps Head to Atlanta to Face Jackets' Explosive Offense

ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 17: David Sims #7 of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets reacts after scoring a touchdown against the Kansas Jayhawks at Bobby Dodd Stadium on September 17, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

What: Maryland takes to the road to begin its ACC season again against a hot #13 Georgia Tech team

Where and When: Bobby Dodd Stadium, Atlanta, GA, at 12:00 on Saturday

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

Spread: Jackets -15

Gameday Weather: 71 and sunny at kickoff, rising to 77 by 4

Notes/Storylines:

  • No home cooking this week. This is Maryland's first road game of the season, and it'll be a pretty rare occurrence: it's one of only four games in which the Terrapins will play on the road, assuming you count the Notre Dame FedEx Field game as the geographical home game that it is. With Tech ranked and undefeated, expect Dodd to be rocking.
  • Has Edsall lost the team? Probably not, but at least one person has been speaking out against him and his militaristic style. This is the first game since those comments went public, and it'll be interesting to see how much fight the squad has in it. If things go poorly today, I don't expect them to improve: remember that after this the Terrapins have two more ranked opponents on the schedule, and the chance for snowballing discontent is very real.
  • A close history. Since the Ralph Friedgen era began in College Park in 2001, Maryland is 3-3 against the Yellow Jackets, with an average margin of victory of less than a touchdown. The "Novak has redemption!" game, the game where Sam Hollenbach had Maryland down four inside the GT 10 with under a minute left, the game where Georgia Tech's kicker missed a last-minute 50-yarder that would've won it ... there's a tradition of close games between these two. Not so sure it'll hold up tomorrow, but at least there's some precedent.
  • Injuries. Maryland is likely to be missing six defensive starters, including STAR linebacker Kenny Tate, who is doubtful with an undisclosed injury. On the other side, both of Georgia Tech's outside linebackers (Jeremiah Attaochu and Daniel Drummond) are questionable.

In a Turtleshell

Georgia Tech Offense vs. Maryland Defense: Let's take a quick inventory here. On one side of the ball is the nation's top offense, averaging over 50 points and nearly 600 yards per game. They're the most efficient offense, too, averaging nearly 9 yards per play. They have the most complex offense in the country to defend. They're the nation's best rushing team, and, unlike years past, are even throwing the ball well, averaging more than 17 yards per attempt.

On the other side is the worst defense in the ACC, checking in at 91st nationally in both total defense and rushing defense (which, in case you forgot, is the bread and butter of that other team). They're likely to miss six players to injury, all of which claimed a starting job when they went down, including their most talented player in Kenny Tate. They find themselves constantly on the field thanks to an struggling offense. And they're operating at a practice time deficiency against that aforementioned "most complex offense to defend" thing.

So you're excused for thinking it might get ugly on Saturday.

All numbers, after all, do point to the Yellow Jackets lighting up the scoreboard and roughing up the Terrapins' already-hurting defense. They're yet to face a defense to pose them a real challenge, and most of the units they've already faced were better - in some cases, significantly so - than Maryland's pieced-together, coached-by-To-Brafor group. It's not a great outlook.

In terms of specifics, GT's offense still relies on Paul Johnson's vaunted triple-option attack, predicated on reading the defense and capitalizing on mistakes. They have a quick, mobile offensive line, as ever, and a wealth of options in the backfield. Orwin Smith is the Jackets' leading rusher and has scored 7 touchdowns, with David Sims and Roddy Jones right behind him, while starting QB Tevin Washington has racked up 4 TDs and 189 yards of his own.

But what has really transformed Tech's offense from merely prolific to astoundingly efficient and explosive is the reemergence of the passing game. They're averaging over 200 yards passing a game, a vast improvement over last year's 83 ypg and a number even more impressive when you realize that they're still only passing the ball 12 times a game or so, the second-fewest attempts in the country. When defenses cheat up to stop the run, Washington lets it fly deep, finding 6-5 Stephen Hill downfield - Hill is averaging over 100 yards per game, is 26th in the nation in receiving yards, and has found the end zone four times.

For Maryland, the story is the same as its ever been against a triple-option. Ask any coach who's ever faced that attack, and they'll tell you the same things: it's impossible to stop, but it needs to be slowed down, and that is done by playing disciplined defense and staying in your gaps. Rest assured that that's been drilled into Maryland's defenders' heads all week long, though I don't know how effective it'll be. And given how many ball-fakes the triple-option uses, it's crucial not to over-commit, so keep an eye on David Mackall - the pass-rushing extraordinaire bit on every play-fake Towson tried last week, which would be near-fatal against Tech.

My first idea for how Maryland could equalize things was to win the turnover battle - it's one of football's great equalizers - but that's unlikely, given that the Jackets have only had 6 giveaways on the year, one of which came last weekend against N.C. State. Nor is it likely that Maryland will be able to pull off another series of red zone stands - the most important factor in their Navy victory from last year - as the Yellow Jackets are in the top 10 nationally in red zone touchdown percentage. And they're almost never sacked, allowing only Washington to go down only three times.

In other words: GT is good at pretty much everything, while Maryland's defense is average at some things and bad at many others. The only good news and potential positive in this half of the game: GT's defense is so different from everything the Terrapins have faced that maybe, just maybe, a straight one-to-one statistical comparison may not be accurate. The trey-option isn't a traditional offense, so sometimes teams' numbers against a traditional offense will be misleading when they face Tech. It's not much, I know, but it's what I got. If that's not the case, buckle yourselves in for a long Saturday in Atlanta.

Maryland Offense vs. Georgia Tech Defense: For as otherworldly as the Ramblin' Wreck's offense is, their defense is surprisingly pedestrian. It's 65th in scoring defense nationally, 62nd in rushing defense, and top out at 37th in passing offense. They're good, but certainly not a brick wall.

And there's a small bonus for Maryland, as the Jackets may be without their starting outside linebackers. As Redskins fans have learned over the past month or two, good outside linebackers are the key to a 3-4 defense being effective, and so GT missing theirs should make things easier on Maryland's offense. The potential absence of Jeremiah Attaochu is especially encouraging, as he's leading GT in sacks (and, in fact, is second in the conference there).

But let's not get too excited. Remember that Maryland's offense has been downright bad (some would use stronger language, I'm sure) in 9 of the last 12 quarters they've played. In fact, just to demonstrate how bad Maryland's offense was in those 9 quarters: if they played all season like they did in those, they would be 111th in total offense nationally and 117th in scoring offense. And the stellar opposition in those 9 quarters included Towson and Temple. In other words: with the exception of three quarters over the past three weeks, Gary Crowton's offense has really struggled.

There's some minor caveats in there, including the fact that they found success against Miami in the opener a few weeks ago. The talent for success is there - maybe not at the level GT is enjoying, but at least better than what we've seen - but things aren't working, with both the scheme and the offense's execution of it falling short of expectations.

Randy Esdall has hinted that we may see Maryland's offense resort to running the ball more than they have in the past. The reason for that is three-fold: first of all, it's been where Maryland's had its biggest successes (see the second half of the WVU game), especially with Danny O'Brien playing as poorly as he has recently; second, Georgia Tech has struggled against it compared to the pass; and third, it allows Maryland to hold the ball for longer periods, thus keeping it out of the hands of Tech's offense.

So, expect to see lots of Davin Meggett and Justus Pickett (undecided, yet, on D.J. Adams). Maryland is likely to hang their hat on the ground game, for better or for worse. With that being the case, I'm wondering if maybe, just maybe, we see a drive or so C.J. Brown Wildcat QB to mix things up a little bit.

Of course, running the ball means that the score has to be close; if Tech gets out to a lead early, Maryland may have to abandon the ground game sooner than they would like. A quick score would do wonders for their confidence and make sure that they'd be able to pound the rock for at least a few drives; and hey, Maryland has success on their first drives, getting points on three of their four opening drives on the year. That's something, right?

Keys in Cliches

Disciplined defense. As mentioned above, every...single...coach says that's the way to stop Tech's option. Doesn't get much more cliched than that, though I'm not doubting the truth of the statement.

Hold the ball. Georgia Tech isn't Navy in how they drain the clock, but they're not shabby at it, either. Maryland, on the other hand, is 117th in the nation in time of possession. A bunch of 30 second 3-and-outs are going to make things mighty difficult.

Win the little-but-big things. I hate it when people say this, but let's face it: Georgia Tech should probably win this thing in a blowout. If Maryland's to have a chance, they'll have to win the turnover battle, keep things close in time of possession, perform better in the red zone (both offensively and defensively), have no special teams errors (maybe cause a few), do better on 3rd downs (both offensive and defensively), and have minimal penalty impact. GT is almost certain to out-gain Maryland and likely to out-play them, but Maryland can get out-gained by 150 yards and still be in the game if they get a few turnovers and GT commits some silly penalties. Hey, it won them the Towson game, right?

Players to Watch

Justus Pickett, RB, Maryland. Edsall said we're gonna see more of Pickett than we have in recent days. Combine that with more rushing than normal, and Pickett could get upwards of 15 carries. Let's see how the (potentially explosive) freshman fares.

Joe Vellano, DT, Maryland. Getting penetration is key against triple-options, and that's Vellano big strength. It was the Navy game last year when Vellano broke onto the scene; a repeat performance would be welcome.

Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech. Everyone knows about that triple-option, but Hill's performance this year has been crucial to the Jackets' success. I have a bad feeling about him against Maryland's secondary.

Julian Burnett, LB, Georgia Tech. Burnett is GT's leading tackler, and tied for fourth in the ACC. He averages nearly 10 a game and is certain to have his name called a lot on Saturday.

Prediction: I can definitely see Maryland staying in this one, or even winning, if enough things go their way. As I said before, they need to run the ball effectively (and a lot), have few penalties (and have GT commit quite a few), have no special teams errors, win the turnover battle by a fair margin, limit mistakes, and play well in the red zone. Thing is, they haven't done most of those things this year. If those turn out as they've been turning out most of the season, Georgia Tech - the better team in terms of talent and execution so far this year - should probably romp. The good news with Maryland is that they've been playing up or down to their opponent so far, with the notable exception of the Temple game, so I don't expect it to be a total blowout. My guess: Georgia Tech wins, 42-27. Give us your prediction in the comments.

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