Maryland Terrapins-N.C. State Wolfpack Preview: In Which Maryland Strives for Relevancy

Mark Dolejs-US PRESSWIRE

Maryland isn't a big name right now, despite their fast start. A win over N.C. State would be, among other things, legitimizing.

What: Maryland Terrapins (4-2) vs. N.C. State Wolfpack (4-2)

Where and When: 3:30 kick at Byrd Stadium, College Park, Md.

Where to Watch: ESPNU. Hopefully with 100% less Dan Hawkins.

Line: State -3.5. Which is pretty fair.

Gameday Weather: 64 degrees and sunny at kickoff. If that isn't perfect football weather, I don't know what is.

Notes/Storylines

Noise. Every single pundit, national or otherwise, is writing off Maryland as an average team that's gotten a little lucky and played a poor schedule. I don't blame them, not really, since that's kind of what they look like. But beat N.C. State, and that song changes. State, who already beat FSU, is a legitimate bowl-bound ACC team. People will sit up and take notice at that point, and Maryland will all of a sudden become A Thing nationally again.

I feel a little silly even saying this, but ... championship? Look, it's a million miles too early for this since there's still a good chance Maryland doesn't so much as make a bowl this season, but I just can't help myself. Look at the path laid out for Maryland: beat N.C. State, and they should be able to beat Boston College and then have a great chance against 2-4 Georgia Tech. Pull that off, and they'd be 7-2 and 5-0 in the ACC heading down the stretch. At Clemson and home to Florida State are likely losses, but I don't care, because Maryland's playing with house money anyway. Lose 'em all you want, but relevant November football is fun as heck, especially in a rebuilding year. Besides, as long as Dabo and Jimbo are coaching those two, nothing's impossible.

I don't think it'll happen, not least because I'm not confident about Saturday, but it's hardly a pipe dream, either. And given where Maryland was at the start of the year, that's shocking.

Bowl eligibility on the horizon. Maryland has a likely win against Boston College still on their schedule. But given that they sit at just four wins, that means they still need to beat one of N.C. State, Georgia Tech, Clemson, Florida State, or North Carolina. They won't be favored in any of those - well, maybe GT - and none of them will be easy games. Getting a win here would make the stretch run a lot less nervy. And, as mentioned above, a lot more fun.

The monkeys on Tom O'Brien's back. Good ol' continually uninspiring TOB: just good enough to not be able to fire, never good enough to actually do anything worthy of note. He's actually never won an ACC Atlantic road game at N.C. State, with a mighty impressive 0-13 record, which I'd say surprises me but after a moment of thought it really doesn't surprise me that much at all. (It's 0-16 for State dating back to the Chuckie Amato days.) His teams also have a nasty habit of going from totally impressive win to utterly depressing letdown loss. You can bet they're looking to erase both trends on Saturday, but they're good signs for Maryland.

Yow Bowl III. Debbie's losing the series right now, 1-1 on the gridiron and 1-2 on the hardwood. I'd like to keep her from equalizing, if possible.

Homecoming. Maryland traditionally has a very good record with homecomings, last year notwithstanding. I'm just hoping we see a Red Ops jersey combination.

Injuries. Maryland might be without Wes Brown; they're definitely without Bennett Fulper, Matt Robinson, and probably Sal Conaboy, too. Justin Gilbert's questionable, to make things even worse. Maryland's offensive line is in quite the bind. N.C. State has no such issues, with starting linemen Rob Crisp and Andrew Wallace probable to return, along with platoon running back James Washington.

In a Turtleshell

N.C. State offense vs. Maryland defense. State's offense isn't going to be breaking many headlines, but they're a fairly competent bunch nonetheless. They check in at 62 nationally in scoring O and 49 in total offense, largely bolstered by big games over South Alabama, the Citadel, and a 37-point performance over Miami. Still, on a per-play basis they're not going to frighten Maryland, as they're 87th in the country and 10th in the ACC in yards per play, which points to their general lack of big-play ability and reliance on holding onto the ball (they're 2nd in the ACC in time of possession).

The attack is built around senior quarterback Mike Glennon, who I've always considered a poor man's Eli Manning: all of the awkward facial expressions, about a seventh of the talent. But he's a serviceable and experienced ACC quarterback nonetheless, having been through the fires and possessing a strong enough arm to make almost any throw. And they really lean on him quite a lot, attempting nearly 40 passes a game - the most in the ACC and 15th-most nationally. It's only successful up to a point - his QB rating is lower than Perry Hills' by a few points - but he's good enough to beat poor secondaries and can get very dangerous when he's in a rhythm. The Terps' back four better be ready for this one, Anthony Nixon especially. You can bet State will look to use Glennon to exploit the youth and inconsistency Maryland's secondary has shown at times this year. (Could this be the Jeremiah Johnson Game?)

Good news is that Glennon is still who he is, which means despite the arm strength, mechanics, and emotional poise, he's an unathletic and erratic pocket passer who'll miss some throws and make mistakes. Maryland's made a habit of pressuring quarterbacks in the past few weeks, and they'll try to continue it, using their athleticism to get to Glennon and force him to make quick reads or pay with sacks. They should be able to do just that, as State's offensive line allows nearly three sacks a game - second-worst in the conference, ahead of just Maryland.

I'm actually probably more intrigued by the running game matchup, honestly. State will run the ball plenty, at about 37 times a game, but the carries get split up between a bunch of backs. Five backs have at least 25 carries on the year, with a sixth - James Washington - their leading rusher last season and returning from injury. The two lead guys, Tony Creecy and Shadrach Thornton, are both well-built downhill runners, good fits for State's big strong offensive line. Maryland's rushing attack has been stout all season, but all of a sudden against Virginia they looked vulnerable, with the Hoos utterly controlling the point of attack. I'm sure N.C. State will see that and look to copy it, and frankly they have the personnel to do so, with a big line and big backs. State might be built around passing the ball, but how Maryland responds to their ground game is going to tell us a lot more about where they stand as a defense.

As a quick side note, the Wuffies do turn the ball over plenty, at 97th nationally with 14 giveaways on the season. If Maryland can get two turnovers, which is the rate they're giving it away on the year, I really like their chances. This defense, even if the run game might be vulnerable now, is too good to give away two possessions to.

At nearly 50-50 run/pass, I don't know if State does any one thing enough - or well enough, for that matter - to force Maryland to change their regular scheme. But with how they could look to exploit what Maryland gave up on the ground last week while still retaining their identity as a largely pro-style passing team, Brian Stewart will have an interesting tactical battle on his hands nonetheless. This has the potential to be a statement game for this defense, facing their first legitimate ACC opponent of the season, with some cracks starting to show and an offense that really needs them in a game that would be huge for the momentum of the program. It's a challenge that should suit them, a quietly confident group, rather well.

Maryland offense vs. N.C. State defense. I wrote at length yesterday about the changes Maryland could make to their offense, and State's defense might not be a terrible test case for it. The Wuffies may have a superstar cornerback in David Amerson and a dangerous, experienced safety in Earl Wolff, but that hasn't stopped them from being utterly incapable of defending the pass at times this season. They did well enough against (a frankly inflated) FSU passing attack, but were ripped to shreds by Tennesse's Tyler Bray and Miami's Stephen Morris, who actually set some ACC records in his game three weeks ago. They're dead last in the ACC, 103rd nationally, in passing defense - and, shockingly, that's with a game over triple-option based Citadel, which only attempted seven passes. Take out that gimme game, and they give up 317 yards per game to actual FBS offenses who throw the ball a normal amount. That despite facing not a single passing offense in the top 20 nationally (though, to their credit, three in the top 30).

Compare that to a fairly solid rushing defense, allowing only 3.4 yards per carry, good for fourth in the conference. With Maryland still trying to cobble together a half-decent rush game, possibly without their best back and certainly without most of their line, I'm not sure this is a game for Maryland's 60% run offense. State will come into this one keying on the run, knowing that Maryland does it a lot. And they have just the right balance between poor passing defense and stout rush defense to justify more of a West Coast approach. If nothing else, I have my doubts that the same ol' offense they've trotted out there the past few weeks will make much of a dent.

Akula Wolf from Backing the Pack tells us that Amerson struggled a bit with trying to jump routes and often got punished for it, which I'm not sure Maryland can actually take advantage of. If they try to go too much to the short route well, Amerson jumping routes will actually work, whereas Hills may or may not actually have the arm to beat him deep. That's playing with fire a bit.

But I think Maryland will have to try it, at least a few times. State's biggest flaw in the passing game is their proclivity for giving up long plays - they've given up more 40+ yard pass plays than anyone else in the country, 11 of them in total. Part of the problem there is that both of their safeties, Earl Wolff and Brandan Bishop, are more physical guys who like to play up, instead of ballhawking center fielders. If the corners get beaten one-on-one, the over-the-top help, while experienced, can be vulnerable. Hills' deep ball isn't always great, but with those numbers it's worth a few tries, especially with Stefon Diggs's explosiveness.

Speaking of Diggs: even if the deep ball isn't on, it's clear that he's worth at least 1.5 big plays a game. If they can't get it over the top, they'll try to get him in space underneath. And never, ever bet against Diggs underneath in space.

Either way, Hills is going to be tested here, especially on third downs: State is #4 in the country in third-down conversion defense. It's basically my nightmare defense for Maryland's attack, which tries to run, avoids the pass, and has a propensity for getting into third-and-longs.

Perhaps the thing that worries me the most, and the thing that could turn this game in State's favor, is that they really, really get after the quarterback. They're second in the conference in sacks, behind only (yup) Maryland. The image that's starting to come together here is one of a pretty commanding front seven, good enough to stuff the run and pressure QBs. And with the state of Maryland's line being what it is, that's not a good sign.

If State's in the backfield all day, especially even if they're not blitzing, I'm not sure where Maryland's going to get their yards. Perry Hills isn't great under pressure, and the run game will need teams to start significantly hedging against the pass to really become dangerous, which State won't do. The line, simply, needs to step up. That's a huge gamble, since they're actually reaching down in the depth chart and the personnel is unlikely to radically improve this late in the year. So if Mike Locksley has a bone of offensive genius in his body, now'd be a good time to cash it in.

Players to Watch

Bryan Underwood, WR, N.C. State. I mentioned him earlier in the game vitals post, because if any weapon on State really scares me, it's Underwood. Maryland historically struggles with those undersized, athletic, canny receivers with a knack for finding space, and that's Underwood to a tee.

Rickey Dowdy, LB, N.C. State. He's unfortunately-named, but athletic and productive. Dowdy is the Wuffies' third-leading tackler, but he tops the charts in both tackles for loss and sacks. I'm afraid that State might camp out in Maryland's backfield, and if they do Dowdy will be the one getting his name called.

Marcus Leak, WR, Maryland. I know Hills' deep ball is shaky, but given State's defense I just don't see any way he gets out of the game without trying two deep balls. Leak is probably the best downfield threat on the team (except for maybe Diggs), so I'd expect him to be the focus.

Demetrius Hartsfield, LB, Maryland. Hartsfield's still Maryland's tackling machine, and I wonder how much State might look to run after seeing Virginia do it so well. If they do keep it on the ground a lot, Hartsfield will need to come up big and wrap up with regularity.

Prediction

I've seen quite a few people start to predict a Maryland win here, which unsettles me, because I don't see the obvious reasons for optimism that I saw against Virginia and Wake Forest, when fewer thought Maryland could pull it out. For the first time all year, except for the West Virginia game, I think the opponent is pretty much better across the board. They have a good, well-rounded offense that might be good enough to beat Maryland on the ground, if the Terrapins come out like they did against Virginia, and will test their secondary. The defense will stuff the run even more, and while their secondary is vulnerable Maryland's offensive line could struggle with pass protection. Maryland's defense is still probably the best of every unit to step on the field, but not my the same margin they usually are.

But we knew that coming into things, kind of. Again, this is Maryland's first game against a legitimate, bowl-bound ACC opponent, which means the intensity gets ratcheted up a few notches. A better Maryland team than the one that played the last two weeks will need to show up on Saturday, or I'm not sold they get this one. Good news is, Maryland does have the personality to do that and step up their game against a good opponent.

Except this one may not really be about Maryland. I know the media from an external POV isn't looking at it that way. It's about N.C. State, and their (in)ability to play from ahead. They don't deal well with success, and never have under O'Brien. They deal even more poorly with conference road games. These have been around long enough to be legitimate trends, not just interesting footnotes, and O'Brien is the only constant amongst them. And guess what: he's still there.

So if State does still struggle with being the favorite, coming out flat and looking ahead to UNC, I could see the balance of power shifting to favor Maryland. But that's a crapshoot from where I stand, and if I'm picking one game between a better team that might not show up or a less-impressive team that certainly will, I'm usually taking the better team. So I'll go against my very well-grounded principles of never picking State and, in fact, pick State, 24-17.

I just want you to know, I'm dead inside now.

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