Looking Ahead to Maryland-West Virginia: Can Terps Retain Momentum?

I say this with no intended hyperbole: Maryland's win over Miami two weeks ago has the potential to be program-changing. Or, more accurately, to be the beginning of a program-changing season.

Think about it: Maryland football has become a national topic. The team got a crucial win over an ACC opponent in a year when the ACC, past Florida State, looks pretty weak. The program created a brand instantaneously. Recruiting already seems to be picking up. And the buzz around the program, both among fans and media, is higher than it's been in a decade. If the Terrapins can win eight or nine games this season, if they can recruit at the level we all expect them to, if the program can finally take the long-awaited leap, perhaps we'll look back at the Miami game as a catalyst for it all.

Thing is, none of those are guarantees, or close to them. The Terrapins could just as easily slip back into mid-ACC obscurity. The win gave Maryland a win and an opportunity, nothing more, and they need to capitalize. That mission starts this weekend, as the Terrapins play #18 West Virginia in Byrd Stadium in a game with the potential to be nearly as crucial as the opener.

I'm not sure you could script a more apt opponent for such a big game. Both schools have new head coaches. They both run exciting spread offenses - WVU and Dana Holgorsen's cultivated under Mike Leach and implemented at Ok. State; Maryland and Gary Crowton's implemented at BYU and Oregon. And to top it off, the schools are rivals, sharing in an intense mutual dislike. Noon kickoff and ESPNU broadcast aside, it's a great setting for a game of importance.

Oh, and there's that little part about West Virginia being good. The Mountaineers are ranked, as noted above, and are Big East contenders, which isn't saying much but is still saying something. They've outscored their first two opponents 89-25. They put up nearly 300 yards in about three quarters in their storm-shortened first game, and then upwards of 500 - plus 45 points in a single half - in their second. The statistics show a team well adapted to their new head man's gunslinging approach.

But the statistics fail to show the quality of WVU's opponents. Game one came against Marshall, expected to be among the weakest teams in the C-USA. And game two came against mighty Norfolk State, an FCS team that didn't make the playoffs last year. Those same stats do reflect, though, the 'eers' troubles through the first contests, namely their lack of a running game and inability to move the ball against Norfolk's defense in the first half.

I went back and watched about 3/4 of WVU's game last week on ESPN3, a 55-12 win against NSU. (Thank you, modern technology; apologies, eyes.) The difference between the first and second halves was absurd. NSU took a 12-10 lead into half and held WVU's offense without so much as a first down in the entire first quarter. They outgained WVU 179-19 in the first quarter. WVU had drives starting at the 26 and 12 and failed to score a TD on either. They had six - six - plays inside the 2 thanks to an NSU pass interference penalty, and had to settle for a field goal. The offensive incompetence was a little stunning.

NSU's defensive scheme was pretty obvious. They decided to sit back and defend the pass, refusing to pressure QB Geno Smith in the process. They wanted to make Smith make reads, throw tough passes, beat them through the air. For the first half, that worked; despite all day to throw the ball, the aerial attack was inconsistent at best.

The reason it worked, though, had more to do with WVU's ground game than anything else, which in a word is horrendous. Despite going up against three-man fronts almost the entire game, they ended up with only 102 yards on 33 carries - that's a 3.1 ypc average. At least it was better than their 42 yards on 26 carries against Marshall, which was good for a 1.6 ypc average. That's very bad. It also means that if a team can contain Smith and the passing game, they can stifle the entire offense.

Obviously, things turned around violently in the second half. It was for a number of reasons, really. One was perhaps that the running game started to factor in - and make no mistake, it was only serviceable, not impressive - which forced NSU to at least respect that facet of the offense, opening things up for Smith and the passing game. They simply didn't have the athletes, the depth, or the talent to play West Virginia's offense straight-up, and it was obvious. That, however, was set up by better execution in the passing game: Smith had fewer missed reads and did a better job of dissecting the defense. Really, the entire offense was executed better, cutting down on drops and missed blocking assignments. In the second half, WVU played how they were supposed to play.

And while we're on the offense: it's worth noting emphasizing that Tavon Austin is as dangerous and elusive as perhaps anyone in the country. He just makes things happen, as he showed several times on Saturday. I'm a little worried about him going up against Maryland's not-exactly-quick safeties, and downright terrified about what he'll do to Maryland's kick coverage, which was gaping against far less imposing opposition last week.

Switching gears to defense: NSU ran a lot of screens early on (sound familiar?) and though few of them were successful, they did open up the field for some deeper throws that worked with alarming consistency in the first half. Inside runs worked pretty well, too. WVU was able to keep Norfolk State out of the end zone all game long, but they weren't fantastic, especially early in the game, when the Spartans were able to drive down the field with regularity. Intermediate-to-long passes were particularly successful. If not for a bucketload of penalties - which also plagued Norfolk's defense - things would've looked even worse.

Still, no one has been in the end zone against the Mountaineers offense yet. Of course, they haven't exactly been tested. Assuming Gary Crowton is willing to test them deep, he may find some holes in a defensive secondary featuring only two returning starters (out of 5, remember, with that 3-3-5 scheme the 'eers run). 

Of course, many of these issues could potentially be chalked up to West Virginia simply overlooking their opposition, and that hypothesis is backed up by the fact that the second half came off much more smoothly. That's Holgorsen's idea; after the game, he said they didn't respect NSU all week in practice. (Um, probably should've corrected that then, Dana.) Rest assured that WVU won't be overlooking Maryland; the Terrapins are actually one-point favorites.

We'll have more throughout the week, but I figured we should start it off early with a few thoughts.

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