Maryland-Virginia Preview: Sliding Terrapins, Streaking Cavaliers Meet in Border Rivalry

MIAMI, FL - OCTOBER 27: Michael Rocco #16 of the Virginia Cavaliers throws the ball against the Miami Hurricanes on October 27, 2011 at Sun Life Stadium in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

What: Two rivals trending opposite directions meet with very different goals - the five-win Virginia Cavaliers go for their first bowl game since 2008, while the 2-6 Maryland Terrapins try to salvage what's left of their season

Where and When: Byrd Stadium, College Park, Md.; 12:30 on Saturday

Where to Watch: ACC Network/Raycom (list of affiliates here); ESPN3 as well; streams will be posted in the GameThread comments

Gameday Weather: 49 and sunny at kickoff

Spread: Virginia -2.5

Notes/Storylines:

  • Senior Day. For the 15 seniors on Maryland's roster, Saturday will be the last time they ever step on Capital One Field at Byrd Stadium wearing a Maryland jersey (except, hopefully, Kenny Tate). We'll have more on them on game day.
  • How many people show up? The good news for attendance: a lot of Virginia fans will probably be in the building, which will drive up the figures, plus it's a rivalry and senior day, which should also help. The bad: well, after last week, can you really expect anything positive? My guess: announced of 38K, actual of half that.
  • What does a loss do for Randy Edsall's job security? Virginia is a good team - likely bowl-bound, in fact - but not unbeatable. A poor showing on Senior Day at home to a rival and a borderline bowl team will dig Edsall's hole ever deeper, something he can afford less and less.
  • Reinforcements. Maryland's still hurting in the injury report - see below - but things are getting better. For one, Kevin Dorsey will be back at wide receiver and will start for the first time since the Clemson game. Also, Justin Gilbert - who was the likely starting LT in spring ball - will play as well for the first time all year. A bit ironic that Gilbert will be making his season debut on senior day, but them's the break. Demetrius Hartsfield is also slated to start, which will be his first game time since the Georgia Tech game.
  • Injuries. Among the big contributors missing for Maryland: Andrew Gonnella, Avery Graham, Matt Robinson, Isaiah Ross, Tate, Cody Blue, Justin Anderson, and Clarence Murphy. But, of course, Dorsey, GIlbert, and Hartsfield are all off the injury report, which is great news. For Virginia's injury report, check here. What you need to know: a few of the Cavs' stars are injured. Cam Johnson, their highly-regarded defensive end, is questionable with a "lower extremity" injury, while starting DT Nick Conrath and RB Kevin Parks are probable.
  • Wait a second, Virginia hasn't won a game in November since 2007? Holy wow. This is where Edsall makes the speech about how much Maryland hates them and darn-it-all if he'll let them break the streak against the Terps. Or something like that, with more colorful phrasing. Or less colorful, given that it's Edsall.

In a Turtleshell

Virginia offense vs. Maryland defense. The Cavs have had to dealt with a quarterback situation similar to Maryland, with two very different QBs fighting for the job. Passing-oriented sophomore Michael Rocco, who struggled with interceptions early in the season, has claimed the starting job for good in recent weeks over the dual-threat freshman David Watford, who didn't see any playing time for the first time all year in Virginia's 28-21 win over Miami last week.

Either way, Virginia is at their heart a running team, averaging nearly 200 yards per game, a mark good enough for third in the ACC. They put up 272 rushing yards against GT, and 207 on Miami. And they're fairly efficient at it, going for 4.6 yards per carry. To get there, they rely a wealth of rushing talent: Perry Jones is the leader statistically (643 yards) but two freshmen, Kevin Parks and Clifton Richardson, play significant roles as well. Parks has rushed for upwards of 80 yards four times this year - including last week against Miami, when he was their leading rusher - and leads the Hoos in TDs; Richardson, for his part, is extremely dynamic and rushed for a crucial 22-yard TD against Georgia Tech.

That's really bad news for Maryland, which has statistically has one of the worst rushing defense in the country and was gashed last weekend against Boston College in the muck. Playing without defensive lineman David Mackall for the first time all year won't help any, either. The return of Demetrius Hartsfield as a rock in the middle of the linebacking corps should be a bost, but it's still a tough situation. Todd Bradford will likely try to stack the box against the run, and it might be their only hope.

As for the air attack, UVA's not terrible and can do it when they have to, but they're certainly more shaky there, as the QB controversy might indicate. They're 83rd nationally (and 9th in the ACC) in yards per attempt, and the 10 TDs to 12 interceptions ratio is certainly eyebrow-raising. The did go for 226 through the air last week against Miami, but managed only 125 against N.C. State and 135 against Georgia Tech earlier in the year. 

That said, Rocco's cut down on his interceptions rather significantly - he hasn't thrown one since the Georgia Tech game several weeks ago - and he has several weapons at wide receiver. Kris Burd is experienced and productive, while sophomore Tim Smith is an up-and-comer who's scored touchdowns in each of the last three games. There's also some extremely talented youth in the form of two true freshmen you might remember, Dominique Terrell and Darius Jennings. Long story short: Virginia's passing game isn't neutered, especially with their talent at wideout, which makes selling out against the run a bit of a dangerous, if still perhaps necessary, proposition.

Luckily, the Cavs are a bit loose with the ball: they've committed 18 turnovers, which is ahead of only North Carolina in the ACC. Granted, a big part of that - interceptions - have subsided in recent weeks, but Maryland's had luck forcing turnovers this year - 2nd in the conference - and you can bet they'll be going for the big play on Saturday. Unluckily, Virginia's offensive line is rock-solid, having allowed only 8 sacks all year - one of the best marks in the country. That's bad news: Rocco hasn't yet proven himself entirely, and might be susceptible to making mistakes under pressure.

To sum it up: Virginia is a ground-focused team with a passing game that's struggled but has talent and is perhaps starting to kick into gear. Maryland's defense hasn't put up a fight against anyone since Georgia Tech three weeks ago. Virginia's offense isn't particularly high-powered at only 24 ppg, but I wouldn't be surprised if they were pushing 30 by the end of the game.

Maryland offense vs. Virginia defense. So, about that quarterback controversy thing...

Yeah, we're still doing that. There's C.J. Brown, the explosive runner who's started three straight weeks and been everything from impressive to worrisome over that timeframe. And there's Danny O'Brien, the proven passer who's struggled all year. Who'll it be? Nobody knows.

Of course, if it's Brown, we'll see more of the horizontal, Crowtonian, no-huddle-hurry-up that's been the Terps' offensive calling card all year. And if's O'Brien, we'll see more of an under-center, Edsallian, pro-style offense with a lot of hand-offs and deep shots. As I've said a hundred times: it doesn't really matter anymore. Either is good enough to win if the team helps them, and neither can win with the way Maryland's played recently.

More importantly, as I mentioned in the storylines section, Maryland's finally getting some reinforcements. Kevin Dorsey, far and away Maryland's best wide receiver, is back in the lineup and should make sure that at least one receiver won't drop everything thrown his way. Likewise, Justin Gilbert will see his first action of the year, and that's big news for an offensive line that's struggled in recent weeks.

Elsewhere, I'd guess Maryland would be the same offense you've come to know. Thing is, the arrival of Dorsey has the potential to perhaps transform Maryland's passing game. KD is a legit ACC #1 wide receiver, which means Quintin McCree - who's come on strong in recent weeks - can move to the #2 and productive tight end Matt Furstenburg can be the third receiving option. That allows Ronnie Tyler, Tony Logan, Marcus Leak, and Adrian Coxson to operate as the fourth or fifth options instead of second or third, taking a significant amount of pressure off them. Doesn't that look like a significantly better receiving corps than what Maryland's been working with recently?

If Edsall and Crowton see that same potential and feel fairly confident in it (remember that the conditions are great for the passing game, with no rain), perhaps expect to see Danny O'Brien start in an attempt to rediscover Maryland's passing game, even though they might be better served by the run (see a few paragraphs down). Otherwise, I'm guessing it'll be Brown again in a last-ditch attempt for Crowton to salvage the long-term viability of his scheme. And, in honesty, the return of an adequate receiving corps will help Brown too: it's not like he hasn't had to deal with drops, either.

Whoever starts at QB and whatever the scheme is, Maryland better be good, because Virginia's defense certainly is. The Cavs' defense is one of the best in the ACC (and the country, if you're willing to stretch the definition of the term "best"). They're in the top four in the ACC, and of the top 41 nationally, in scoring defense, total defense, passing defense, and rushing defense, making them a group with very few weaknesses.

They're probably at their best against the pass, where shutdown cornerback Chase Minnifield, a potential first-round pick in next April's NFL Draft, can match up with any wide receiver. True freshman Demetrious Nicholson - one of the best of UVA's insane 2011 haul - mans the other corner spot, and his performance, too, has been more-than-admirable. All in all, it combines to create a unit 26th in the nation in yards per attempt. Perhaps we might want to rethink that "passing game" thing.

Not that they're that much worse in the running game. They do drop to 4th in the ACC and 41st in the country when you switch to the ground, but both of those numbers are respectable. Still, Virginia's two best linemen by a fair margin - Johnson and Conrath - are both banged-up and listed on the injury repot. If either one can't go - especially Johnson, who like Minnifield is a first-round talent - Virginia loses a critical piece of their front four. If neither can go, the Terps hit the lottery. Maryland might consider running at their spots consistently.

If Maryland does try to test the Cavaliers' secondary a fair amount on Saturday, the good news is that the quarterback - whoever he is - shouldn't be under consistent pressure. Virginia's 10th in the ACC in sacks, and Johnson was their leader in that category with three. Likewise, they aren't particularly ball-hawking (14 takeaways is 7th in the ACC). Those figures, if nothing else, should help Maryland significantly come Saturday.

Keys in Cliches

Once more, with feeling. I guess I can understand coming out flat against Temple, or against Boston College in front of 17 people in the freezing rain, or even on the road at Florida State in an intimidating atmosphere. But this is a border rival on Senior Day - surely that will be enough to get Maryland to focus and not get punched in the mouth out of the gate this time, right? A flat performance here will likely bury the Terps yet again.

Force, and convert on, turnovers. Turnovers is one of the few areas in which Maryland has a real advantage over the Cavaliers - the Terps are second-best in the ACC in forcing them, and the Cavs are second-worst in the ACC at holding onto the ball. The turnovers will almost certainly come, but Maryland will have to get points out of them.

Make them throw. The passing game for Virginia might just be coming together, but I'll take that over a very well put-together ground game. Bradford and the Terps' D has to do what they failed to do against Temple, Boston College, and any team who decided they wanted to pound the ground: force them to throw. If they can get Rocco under pressure (paging Joe Vellano, Andre Monroe, and Lorne Goree), all the better, but they mostly just need to make sure Virginia can't run it down their throats.

Players to Watch

Kevin Parks, RB, Virginia. Maryland's run defense has performed its worst against big, bruising tackle-breakers, and that's Parks. He's coming off a great performance against Miami and most independent observers are expecting him to shred Maryland's defense.

Nick Conrath, DT, Virginia. Like Parks, Conrath is listed as probable on the injury report. He's leading UVA in tackles for loss and has been very productive all year. He's more likely than Johnson to suit up, and his presence could hurt Maryland's efforts to run the ball.

Davin Meggett, RB, Maryland. I hope Maryland realizes that they have to run the ball in this game, and uses Meggett at least 25 times. If Virginia is missing either Conrath or Johnson, I don't think they'll have any other choice. If Maryland wins, they'll likely get a big performance out of the senior.

Demetrius Hartsfield, LB, Maryland. Mete picked a hell of a time to get healthy. He'll be asked to make plenty of stops against UVA's bruising backs, and everyone's hoping he's the key Maryland's run defense has been missing all along.

Prediction

One of the recent themes of Maryland football is how little difference there can be between 2-10 and 9-4. Maryland's been on the bad side of that line; Virginia's been on the good side. While the Terps have been giving up giant runbacks on kickoffs, missing field goals, and finding ways for drives to stall in the red zone, the Cavs have been converting fake field goals, throwing halfback passes for touchdowns, getting big gains, and occasionally escaping by the skin of their teeth. That is, they sound a lot like last year's Maryland team. (Maybe we should warn them?)

And that's not to take away from anything Virginia's done: that's all about execution. As I've said so many times, when it's spread over the course of a year, you make your own luck. Virginia's been executing, and Maryland hasn't. My point is that there's probably a bit less difference between the two than the records would indicate. On any given Saturday, if Maryland simply played like they cared and executed, or if Virginia's running back passes changed from touchdowns to pick-sixes, the Terrapins could probably win fairly easily.

But, of course, we've been given no reason to expect that. Do I think Maryland can win this game? Certainly. Do I think they will? Not really. Virginia 31, Maryland 20.

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