We meet again, Mr. Morris.
What: Maryland begins their season - and the Randy Edsall era - against a suspension-ravaged Miami Hurricanes team
When: 8:00, Monday night
Where: Byrd Stadium, College Park, MD
Where to Watch: ESPN, ESPN3D, WatchESPN.com; streams will be in the GameThread
Gameday Weather: 71 and rainy
Spread: Maryland -3.5.
- Beginnings. This game offers two teams both beginning new coaching eras: Al Golden at Miami, and Randy Edsall at Maryland. I imagine that's a fairly unique phenomenon. It does make it a little tough to know what to expect out of the opposition, if nothing else.
- First looks, too. This perhaps goes with the above, but it's more unique to Maryland: the first look at Gary Crowton's offense, at Todd Bradford's defense, at the new uniforms in action, at Kenny Tate at STAR ... lots of new things to see in this one.
- Injuries. Maryland will be without Justin Anderson on the defensive line, Justin Gilbert on the offensive line, and perhaps Adrian Coxson at wide receiver. That, along with D.J. Adams' suspension, is about it as far as losses go, while Miami is without ... well, you know.
- College Football Live! That's cool. It's also a pretty big deal on ESPN as the only game of the day; top billing and a moderate national audience is to be expected.
- About that Shapiro thing ... Yeah. I'm assuming some people will discuss that, too.
In a Turtleshell
Maryland Offense vs. Miami Defense: Coming into the year, Miami's defense looked to be the strong suit of the team. While star defensive end, lead pass rusher, and Hulk look-alike Allen Bailey has moved onto the Kansas City Chiefs, almost every other big piece was back: Sean Spence, the team's MVP last season at outside linebacker; experienced secondary mates Vaughn Telemaque and JoJo Nicolas; three starters on the defensive line, including promising DT Marcus Forston; and the sensational safety Ray Ray Armstrong, the heir apparent to the Ed Reed-Sean Taylor safety legacy at The U.
Then that happened.
The NCAA suspensions from ShapiroGate could've been a lot worse, but still shattered Miami's defense. Spence, Armstrong, Forston, and starting DEs Adewale Ojomo and Olivier Vernon are all being held out by the NCAA, and another starting 'backer, Kelvin Cain, is suspended for separate violations committed back in May. So, instead of eight or so returning starters, they get three: Telemaque, Nicolas, and defensive tackle Micanor Regis.
The big hit comes on the defensive line. There were already questions about who would provide the pass rush without Bailey's team-leading seven sacks, but now they're missing #2 (Vernon with 6 sacks), #3 (Ojomo with 5 sacks), and one of the three tied for #4 (Forston with 3). In short: the defensive line alone shouldn't provide much of a pass rush on Danny O'Brien.
Farther back, Miami looks more secure, although that's not saying much. The losses of Spence and Armstrong hurt, for sure - they're the traditional extremely athletic, flashy Miami defenders, guys who just make stuff happen. On a good day, they can win Miami a game, and they'll miss their special performances.
The back seven has its fair share of experience problems, as well: the Canes are going to breaking in two new linebackers - with a combined 17 tackles - and two new cornerbacks - with a combined one career start. But the saving grace is that there is some experience in the back seven with guys like Telemaque, a two-year starter at safety; Nicolas, a senior who's been a starter for two years; and Ramon Buchanon, their fifth-leading tackler from last year. When you remember that, unlike on the DL, the back seven's depth wasn't destroyed, it's enough to provide some stability, for which the defense is crying out.
But I think you get the gist: Miami's defense has really been gutted. Even without much analysis, it's clear to see that Maryland has the advantage in pure numbers alone. If you do want the analysis, the real advantage comes in the trenches, where the Canes are missing both talent and depth. The aforementioned pass rushing problems are at the forefront. If Gary Crowton's offense spreads the field as much as it's expected to, it could be a serious issue. Blitzing against a spread is a tough task, particularly when the quarterback is as quick-witted as O'Brien, but then again giving him all day to throw the ball isn't a recipe for success either. It's a real conundrum, assuming Maryland does spread the field and throw the ball.
Which, of course, is no guarantee. Crowton ostentatiously hasn't run his offense since the 2006 season in Oregon, which was the beginnings of the crazy spread perfected by Chip Kelly. Something tells me that his look won't be nearly that out-there; maybe it's Edsall's hyper-conservative background, or maybe it's the fact that there's been seemingly little indication that Crowton is going with a rebuild project that ambitious. Bottom line: what we'll see out of Maryland's offense is a bit of a question mark, albeit not as big of a question mark as the quality of Miami's ravaged defense.
One thing we do know: Maryland's offense should be high-tempo, given how much Crowton has mentioned it over the past several weeks. That's another problem for Miami's front four, because not only are they missing three starters, they're also missing two main reserves.
Very few No defensive lines can absorb five losses without depth trouble, and Crowton and Maryland will look to exacerbate those troubles with a quick tempo that will keep the big guys up front tired.
O'Brien should, in all honesty, have a bit of a field day. He's no doubt been studying his playbook all summer, and has probably had his eyes glued to whatever film he can find. An inexperienced defense breaking in eight new starters - five of them with about a week of prep time - is exactly what he wants to hear.
Everything else is a little more questionable for Maryland. The wide receivers will be glad to go up against some inexperienced cornerbacks, but let's not forget that they're fairly inexperienced themselves. Same goes for the offensive line: I'm sure that Josh Cary is glad that he won't face the former #1 DT in the country, but he's a sophomore walk-on in his own right.
All in all, Maryland's own inexperience, as well as the giant question mark that is Gary Crowton's scheme, makes this a little difficult to forecast. But with Miami's struggles, it should be safe to say that Maryland won't be at a disadvantage. I fully expect Crowton to throw the ball quite a bit, taking advantage of his quarterback, the lack of an opposing pass rush, and inexperienced cornerbacks.
Miami Offense vs. Maryland Defense: I believe we're all acquainted reasonably well with Stephen Morris, Miami's de facto starting QB since Jacory Harris, who may or may not have started, was sidelined by the NCAA suspensions. Morris, after all, made his first career start against Maryland last year, making a last-minute TD throw to give the Canes a win. He was good, going 18/30 for 286 yards and a touchdown. In truth, I wouldn't have minded seeing the mistake-prone Harris out there instead, but it wasn't to be.
In truth, Miami's offense wasn't hit nearly as hard as their defense. Suspending Harris is saving Miami from themselves to begin with, and the other losses - reserve TE Dyron Dye and starting WR Travis Benjamin - are hardly crippling. Benjamin is electric, true enough, and was Morris' favorite target against Maryland last time, accounting for about half of Miami's passing yardage. But Dye wasn't expected to see the field, and that was all the NCAA saw fit to suspend. Seantrel Henderson, it should be mentioned, will also be out - he was suspended by the team forever ago, and is injured besides.
Other than that, Miami's offense is intact. Worse, the ground game that hurt the Terrapins so much last time - the Canes rushed for 218 yards - returns almost entirely: Lamar Miller and Mike James, the main culprits at RB, are both back this season, All-ACC center Tyler Horn is still in the side, and both left and right guards are back. In fact, it's basically entirely unscathed: Harris and Benjamin are only used in the passing game, and Henderson at LT is much more important for his ability to protect the QB than open up holes for RB.
As such, it's pretty safe to expect Al Golden and Miami to rely upon the ground game much more than they do the passing game. It's not as if he needed any extra incentive. After all, the running game is college football's answer to the three-pointer: it's the great equalizer. If Maryland's advantage on offense is as big as it might be, Miami's best chance at this will be to slow the game down, hold the ball, control the clock, and eat up yards on the ground. If they're anything like last year's team, they'll probably be able to pull it off.
That's going to be the real key for Todd Bradford and Maryland's defense: can they stop the run and force Miami to pass? Thing is, they have the personnel to do it. Alex Wujciak was a big part of stopping the run last season, but was often a liability when he was stretched wide. Joe Vellano is a match for any interior offensive lineman, and A.J. Francis is quite good as far as #2 DTs go. Maryland's linebackers are experienced, and their safeties are big and like to play close to the line of scrimmage. Of course, that was much the case last year, and we saw how it all worked out.
Actually, the passing game was nearly as effective for Miami last season, though much of that was thanks to Travis Benjamin's heroic run-after-the-catch efforts and some uncharacteristic mistakes from Trenton Hughes, whom, if you believe the depth chart, won't be starting on Monday anyway. In truth, it's a little difficult to believe that Maryland's secondary has gotten much better with its two best members, Kenny Tate and Antwine Perez, moving elsewhere. Still, I'll roll the dice with the knowledge that Maryland's front four should be able to pressure Morris thanks to Henderson's injury and the addition of David Mackall on Maryland's front line.
But just to spit in the face of the past several hundred words I just wrote: the best defense is still a good offense. If Maryland can't stop the running game, as they had trouble with last year, they'd could be just as well served by getting out to a quick lead that might force the Hurricanes to abandon the running game earlier than they'd like.
Players to Watch:
Kevin Dorsey, WR, Maryland: Dorsey is getting the first start of his career on Monday. It's a good situation for him, as he'll likely be going up against an equally inexperienced CB. He'll get a lot of looks if Maryland passes as much as I think they will.
David Mackall, DE, Maryland: Miami's offense was fantastic last year, both on the ground and in the air. One sure-fire way to disrupt the latter aspect is putting pressure on Morris, and there might be no easier way than lining up HS sack machine and human hit stick David Mackall across from Seantrel Henderson back-up Joel Figueroa.
Laron Byrd, WR, Miami: I was tempted to go with Lamar Miller or Mike James, Miami's top two running backs, but I think we already know their importance. Byrd will be far and away Miami's top receiver, with Benjamin suspended and Leonard Hankerson with the Redskins. Can he step up and be a reliable target for Morris?
Brandon McGee, CB, Miami: McGee is going to be across from Dorsey, but also more importantly across from Danny O'Brien. He's making just his second career start at cornerback, and I expect O'Brien to look for him to make mistakes.
Prediction: In all honesty, it's a game Maryland should be winning. There's too much going in their favor: a home game, the distractions at Miami, and the fact that they, unlike their opposition, don't have to replace half of their starters with only a week or two of notice.
Much of this, of course, will depend on how Miami reacts. Generally, teams use adversity like they've faced to come together, and that alone often makes games against teams like this treacherous. (Think of it like a Gary Williams team when the Washington Post writes a hack piece about them.) I can't count the number of times something like that's happened - UNC-LSU last season is probably the most recent example.
But Randy Edsall, for all of his supposed shortcomings in recruiting and coolness, should be able to focus a team. I would think that would be one of his big draws, in fact. So long as Maryland remains as keyed-in as Miami the Terrapins are the favorites, simply based on personnel. I'm going Terps, and relatively comfortably. Maryland by 10, 27-17.