Where and When: 3:00 kick on Saturday on October 13 at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Va.
Line: Virginia -1. So basically a toss-up.
Gameday Weather: 59 and sunny at kickoff. Perfect weather.
Halfway there. Maryland already has three wins, putting them halfway to bowl eligibility. The back-end of the season - @Clemson, Florida State, @UNC - is pretty killer, which means getting to six wins in the next four contests is crucial for the Terps' postseason hopes. That being the case, they need to win these relatively easy ones, especially against a team that, like Virginia, is an absolute tailspin. There's just not enough margin for error to lose this one and still feel confident about postseason play.
And yes, Virginia's in a tailspin. They've lost four in a row, with three of those being absolute beatdowns. That's despite outgaining their last two opponents by 300 yards (and still losing by a combined 31 points). And the only reason they've not lost six in a row is because Penn State's kicker missed four field goals and an extra point. Fans are starting to wonder if the season is a write-off. They're in the middle of a quarterback change. And at some point you have to wonder how responsive players will be to Mike London. Maryland might even be able to reverse the roles from last year: an upstart, overachieving team traveling to the underachieving guys who are losing their season.
Recruiting rivalry. I don't really care about UVA as a rival as much as some do, but I do care about Mike London coming into Maryland and stealing recruits, all while having his own state on lockdown. Maryland needs to keep building its fence around the state (plus D.C.), as well as be able to head south to grab at least two to three Virginians every season. Maryland and Virginia are competing for the same kids every year; whichever side can claim superiority on the field will have an upper hand on the trail, too.
And a real rivalry, too, I guess. Meh. I mean, I get the hate for Virginia as a University - they can be an insufferable lot at times, what with the sun dresses and ties and "fourth year" nonsense. Hardcore fans are almost always okay, but man, their casuals are just something else. And as far as a football team goes, they're as close as Maryland gets to an honest-to-goodness rival. So I guess that's enough to get excited for this. I guess.
Injuries. No Wes Brown, Matt Robinson, or Kerry Boykins for the Terps, and Nick Ferrara's career is now done for good. Plus, Justus Pickett, Kenneth Tate, Darius Kilgo, and a host of others are listed as probable. So Maryland's not in a great spot as far as injuries go. The Cavs, meanwhile, may be without a few starters of their own - notably starting receivers Tim Smith and Darius Jennings, both of whom are questionable. That'll put a lot more pressure on Phillip Sims (or Michael Rocco) at quarterback.
In a Turtleshell
Virginia offense vs. Maryland defense. The big story with the UVA offense is the QB situation, as they sat down two-year starter Michael Rocco in favor of Alabama transfer and former five-star recruit Phillip Sims. It was something that probably had to happen anyway for recruiting reasons (Sims is a son of the 757, after all), but Rocco was probably making too many mistakes to let slide anyway. He's the most intercepted QB in the conference, and the only one with a TD:INT ratio lower than one. Virginia's losing games they're supposed to be winning, and turnovers were a big reason why. So it made sense to make the switch.
Sims, though, isn't a game-changer by any stretch. He's a good enough quarterback with great physical tools, but he doesn't have a great grasp of the playbook and looked decidedly mediocre against Duke, which was his first extended playing time of the season. He has more mobility than Rocco, but Virginia doesn't really take advantage of that, as they run more or less the same stuff with him in the game. Which is to say pretty much a box standard collegiate pro-style offense. They do throw the ball a fair amount, though - averaging 43 attempts over the past three games - so Sims will get plenty of time with the ball in his hands to make plays.
And, frankly, you'd expect him to be forced into having to make plays. UVA's ground game has been more or less average this year, checking in at 89th nationally in yards/game (75th in yards/carry). Sophomore Kevin Parks, who had a big game against Maryland last year, is their leading rusher, and is averaging more than 5 ypc. (Senior Perry Jones has had less success, despite the same number of carries.) But they don't rely on their ground game and it's probably not good enough to rely upon anyway. Certainly against Maryland's defense it's likely a bad idea to try to pound the ball.
Which means this'll probably come down to Sims' ability to throw the ball against Maryland's defense. I'm not exactly psyched about that, given that Maryland's secondary has been a little hit-or-miss this year, but it will be an interesting challenge. I'd guess that Brian Stewart will approach this game in a similar way to the West Virginia game: Sims has the physical tools and the weapons to beat Maryland's secondary, but he struggles with the mental side of it, so throw in some disguised pass rushes and a zone blitz or two to get him and his offensive line confused. Obviously, if Jennings and/or Smith can't go, it'll make things easier on Maryland's secondary and give them a few less athletes to cover.
But Virginia's biggest enemy this year has probably been themselves. They've put up a lot of yards this season, but don't have anywhere near the points they deserve out of those yards. That's partially due to a lot of penalties (they're the most-penalized team in the ACC) and to a lot of turnovers, but not entirely to either or both of those factors. They're missing something of a cutting edge this season, and they squander opportunity after opportunity. That's a luxury they won't have against Maryland's defense.
With Sims starting just his second collegiate game, can they finally start executing? I'm not sold. And I bet Brian Stewart will be licking his lips thinking up ways to force Virginia into making more and more mistakes.
Maryland offense vs. Virginia defense. Okay, good news first: Virginia has forced only three turnovers all season, which is good for 123rd nationally. (Only Buffalo is less opportunistic.) Usually turnovers get chalked up to one of two things: playmakers, or effort and smart play. The Cavs seem to me to have a decent amount of playmakers, but they're still young guys and hardly well-established. More important, the effort and smart play category is a little more questionable; if you can draw anything from Virginia this year, it's that there are some real worries about team discipline.
And that's a good thing for Maryland, which is 118th nationally in their own right in turnovers. Something's gotta give. Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised to see it break Virginia's way, given that Maryland's biggest problem is with fumbles, which have a lot do with luck as to who recovers them. But if the Terps are ever going to get away from shooting themselves in the foot with turnovers, this is their shot to do it.
Meanwhile, Virginia's defense this season has been competent, if somewhat uninspiring. They're stronger statistically against the pass, 50th nationally in yards/att and 55th in total yardage compared to 83rd nationally against the rush (107th in yards/carry). But given that a sixth of that data is coming from a game against Georgia Tech, it's probably pretty safe to assume that both of those categories are more realistic meeting the middle, so they're a fairly well-rounded bunch.
They do not, however, get after the quarterback in the least, with only four sacks all season. Again, that's a problem that can probably be fixed by Maryland - this time, by their leaky offensive line. But even if they do get the QB, it's unlikely that they'll be able to take advantage of that as much as most teams in the ACC could.
All in all, it paints of a picture of a fairly well-balanced and able defense, but not a defense that will control or win games by any stretch. Unless Maryland gives them the chance, they won't come up with multiple game-changing turnovers. Unless Maryland gives them the chance, they won't find themselves in the Terrapins' backfield all game. And unless Maryland gives them the chance, I don't see them dominating and turning the tide of a fairly even game toward UVA.
Which isn't to sell them short; I'm fairly confident that they're a better unit than Maryland's offense, and the Terps O will probably continue to struggle to move the ball unless Good Perry Hills shows up. The Cavs are a better defense than West Virginia, and they might even be better than Temple, too. Maryland will have to be smart about this.
And being smart, in this case, probably means being simple. Run the ball. It's tougher without Wes Brown, but it still needs to happen. Avoid the zone-read option, because it doesn't work. And focus on short and intermediate passes, especially over the middle where Stefon Diggs can get the ball in space. Keep things as low-risk as possible, because a) the defense will keep Maryland in this game and maybe win it for them, b) Virginia themselves will keep Maryland in this game and maybe win it for them, and c) Diggs needs only one shot to turn a "low-reward" type of play - a quick slant on second-and-long, say - into a touchdown. Anything past that, like asking Hills to go deep, is just asking to let Virginia in the game through a silly turnover, a turnover I don't think UVA has the capability to force with Maryland keeping things simple.
So this isn't a game to get fancy with the zone-read or try to get Hills out there running the show. If there's no real movement through a quarter or two, maybe trot out the Devin Burns Wildturtle package a bit and see if Maryland can catch them off-guard with it. Otherwise, there's no need to get fancy.
And I understand this isn't groundbreaking stuff. We've seen enough of Maryland to know that this should be their M.O for the rest of the year: grinding out wins based on being the more disciplined team and having the better defense, with Diggs changing the game through one or two plays when he gets the shot. But it's especially true here, because Virginia's defense isn't strong enough in any one area to change that equation for Maryland, and their weaknesses - penalties, an inability to get pressure on the QB, an inability to force game-changing turnovers - play right into Maryland's hands.
Players to Watch
Jake McGee, TE, Virginia. The sophomore tight end seems to be Virginia's go-to target in the red zone, leading the Hoos in touchdown receptions with three. If Virginia can get down there, Kenneth Tate will need to be keeping an eye on him.
Steve Greer, LB, Virginia. A senior play-maker, Greer is both Virginia's leading tackler and sack man on year. If anyone's going to be showing up in Maryland's backfield all game long, it's probably him.
Matt Furstenburg, TE, Maryland. This is the perfect Furstengoal game, given that Maryland should be looking to keep things pretty simple offensively. I expect to see at two tight end screens, Mr. Locksley.
Dexter McDougle, CB, Maryland. Sims likes to take chances and occasionally force balls? Sounds like a ballhawker's dream scenario, and McDougle is most certainly a ballhawker. I know he's been trying to dial it down a bit, but it seems like a good game for him to come back as a playmaker.
I was pretty lax about this earlier in the week, but as it's gone on and I've seen more and more, I can't help but think this is a really good matchup for Maryland.
Virginia is a team that loses games they should win. They lose games that they statistically do win. They outgained Duke by 60 yards on Saturday ... and lost by 25. They outgained Louisiana Tech by 240 yards ... lost by 6. And they do this because they turn the ball over, they don't get turnovers back, they get penalized, they have poor playcalling and game management, they make mistakes.
Quite simply, they underachieve. And when you're six games in, this underachievement is clearly a structural problem. you don't fix this type of thing in a week.
Maryland, meanwhile, wins games they should lose. They grit, they grind, rely on their defense, don't get penalized, force turnovers, and then get just enough magic from Mr. Diggs when it matters.
Simply, they overachieve.
I don't see Maryland running away with this game, but I do see them winning it, mostly because when a sloppy, underachieving team faces a more disciplined, overachieving team - and the talent level is pretty similar - the more disciplined team usually wins. It won't be a pretty game and I'm not sure I'd say Maryland's the more talented team, but they're probably the better-coached team - yeah, I went there - and probably the better team.
This is all assuming that we don't see a sudden reversal of form on either side to their statistical numbers, which is totally possible but probably unlikely. So long as we don't, I have Maryland winning an ugly one.