Where and When: 12:30 at Byrd Stadium, College Park, Md.
Where to Watch: ACC Network*, so check the affiliate list here. (Medford, Or., you are in luck!) If you're not getting the game on TV you can watch on ESPN3 (blackout map here). And if you're blacked out but can't watch for some strange reason, you'll be able to watch it live on the ACC's website, right here.
Line: -8 GT. Think that's a bit high.
Gameday Weather: 49 and sunny. Fall weather, man.
Notes / Storylines
It's Petty time. I don't know about you guys, but I am so ready for this. Expectations, at least from fans, are gone. Anything is gravy at this point. Time to have some fun and see if the experiment works out. If it does, between The Linebacker Playing Quarterback and The Return Of The Pride Uniforms, Maryland's definitely getting some national pub'.
Speaking of the Pride uniforms, they're back. Only they're in black this time, not white. Stylish, but I have a feeling Plank and the AD really wanted these babies to debut on primetime, not with a 12:30 kick on the ACC Network* against a 3-5 Georgia Tech. C'est la vie, I guess.
Basically a must-win again, but I'm not holding my breath. Last week was a "must-win", and Maryland lost, so I've sort of written off the post-season. Technically they could still make it, but they'd almost certainly have to win today to have any legitimate chance.
Meanwhile, GT has a quarterback controversy. Tevin Washington will likely start. Fans want to see more Vad Lee, and Paul Johnson has indicated that he'll give Lee more snaps. Here's hoping it starts to split team morale and offensive effectiveness.
Injuries. Look, injuries! I will count them. One, one Maryland Terrapin on the injury report. Two, two Maryland Terrapins on the injury report. Three, three Maryland Terrapins on the injury report. Four, four Maryland Terrapins on the ... okay, I'm not doing this. It's 26. Twenty-six goddamn Maryland Terrapins on the injury report.
The Yella Jackets? Five, and three of those are reserves. Starting offensive tackle Will Jackson is questionable but sounds likely to play, and cornerback Louis Young (of Good Counsel origin) and kicker David Scully will both suit up.
Some teams have all the luck.
In a Turtleshell
Maryland offense vs. Georgia Tech defense. Johnson cut loose Al Groh as some kind of scapegoat a few weeks ago after giving up 46 a game over a three-week spell in the heart of the year. Taking the reins is former secondary coach Charles Kelly, and he's running the same 3-4 defense Groh did. Neither the personnel nor scheme has changed from when Tech had one of the least-impressive defenses in the conference; the only possible bumps would come from Kelly having more tactical nous than Groh - which, no matter how low your opinion of Groh may be, seems unlikely to me - or from being more able to motivate his players better, which is a possibility. Regardless, rarely do these types of mid-season changes bear fruit. I expect GT will largely be the same defense that they were earlier in the year, as we saw last week when BYU - who was averaging just 24 points a game before the game - put up 41 on them.
Tech does have two critical spots in the 3-4 scheme filled adequately, with athletic edge-rushers Brandon Watts and DC product Jeremiah Attaochu providing pressure from the outside 'backer spots. Louis Young, too, is a pretty solid cornerback and Rod Sweeting is experienced at the other corner spot. Everything else, though? Major question marks. The inside linebackers are a freshman and sophomore who have struggled, and the defensive line doesn't have anyone who can command a double team, which is critical. (Seriously, starting a 6-7 nose tackle is
incomprehensibly stupid utter nonsense inadvisable. It's all about leverage, folks. Leverage, leverage, leverage.)
There isn't anything Georgia Tech's defense does particularly well, nor anything particularly poorly. They're eighth in the ACC in yards per carry allowed, at 4.24, and seventh in yards per pass attempt, at 7.4. That's probably good news for Maryland, because at least they aren't standouts at shutting down the rush. You can expect Maryland to lean on the ground game plenty, what with Shawn Petty starting at quarterback an' all, so Tech's status as a supremely mediocre rush defense is heartening.
But it's not as simple for Mike Locksley as just "run the ball." As I see it, there are three keys as far as playcalling goes. The first: bubble screens, bubble screens, bubble screens. Georgia Tech is going to try to stack the box against Maryland's running game, and one of the obvious counters against that is to spread the field. But if spreading the field is to have any effect, the receivers have to be actual threats. The easiest, safest way for that to happen: bubble screens, which are easy throws for Petty. They keep Maryland's receivers in the game and Georgia Tech's defense stretched horizontally.
Second: use a variety of options, from the traditional zone-read to speed options, reverse options with Stefon Diggs, inverted veers, and everything else in the kitchen sink. Maryland's running game disintegrated against Boston College because, once again, they couldn't rely on the read option. I have no idea if Petty, a burly guy who has experience with options but only moved to the position two weeks ago, will be more effective than Caleb Rowe or Perry Hills was with that play, but here's hoping he is. Maryland needs the advantage of an extra playside blocker to get any sort of push up front, and after that it's up to Wes Brown to do some work. It's not guaranteed to work and will require a heck of a lot of execution, but it's probably the best chance Maryland's offense has. And if Maryland gets some of that execution and it does actually work, GT's defense will start overcompensating out of necessity and then Locksley can go to those delicious little extras and counteraction plays, taking advantage of a defense back on their heels.
And third: let Petty sling it around, even if only a little bit. Part of this has got to come down to having faith in your guys, even if you don't necessarily actually have faith in them. They're what you got, and once GT cheats their safeties way up and goes to Cover 0 a few times in a row, it's time to test them - if not deep, at least with an intermediate pass. Maryland's receivers are too good to ignore in that situation, and Petty, if nothing else, throw a pretty ball that's easily catchable. It might not work, but that's not really the point. If Maryland doesn't at least announce the threat of that intermediate pass, Georgia Tech will keep cheating up and the extra bodies in the box will ruin any chance at a consistently workable option game.
Like I've said several times, that gameplan, like any other, requires a lot of execution and is unlikely to come off very cleanly, but that's just Maryland's game right now. You can't change a roster mid-season, after all. Get points whenever they can, limit mistakes at other times, and rely on the defense to keep it close until Diggs goes Diggs.
Georgia Tech offense vs. Maryland defense. You know GT's gig by now: triple-option. But things are a little different this year: it doesn't seem like they have the same level of athletes across the offense. Not in the backfield, where their B-backs (the fullback lined up behind the quarterback) have struggled and their A-backs (the guys on the wing), with the exception of Orwin Smith, aren't likely to strike fear in many. Tevin Washington at quarterback is smart but not dynamic; Vad Lee, his backup who's pushing to start, is much more explosive but less experienced. The Stephen Hill aspect - a long, dangerous downfield threat at receiver - isn't there anymore. And the offensive line, usually the key to the whole thing, has frankly been somewhat disappointing, despite having quite a lot of experience across the front. Getting back Will Johnson at right tackle, who's missed the past few games and is listed as questionable for Saturday, could be big, but it's doubtful he's any sort of missing link.
Now, don't misunderstand me. This is still a very good unit: fourth in the ACC in scoring offense, fourth in total offense, second in yards/play, first in 40+ yard plays, first in rushing offense, and first in yards per pass attempt. But all of those little niggles combined make this unit merely very good, still a far cry from last year's dominant group, which was easily first in the ACC in both total and scoring offense, plus yards per carry (this year they're second to Florida State).
And here's the thing about the numbers they've put up this year: they've faced only two defenses that classify as truly good defenses, top-half nationally in both total and scoring D. Against Virginia Tech, they managed 17 points, with seven of those coming thanks to a really short field. Against BYU, it was only three. So there's a shot that GT's offense is something of a paper tiger, and not really even that good of a paper tiger at that. (Of course, the same argument could be made about Maryland's defense.) We'll find out on Saturday, but there's some reason to take heart if you're Maryland's front seven.
And that's good news, because Maryland needs its defense to be borderline dominant on Saturday. A fit-and-firing Georgia Tech is as explosive an offense as there is in the country. Maryland cannot match them score-for-score. If they come out blazing, the game falls apart. If, on the other hand, Maryland's defense comes up stout and is able to limit them, they'll give their offense a shot to pull something out late.
As for defending the triple option, the popular thing to say is that if everyone's in the right place at the right time - "assignment football", if you will - it's pretty simple to stop, but that's not really right. Yes disciplined, smart football is the best way to defend it, but the ol' "somebody take the pitch man, somebody take the dive" method just lets the offense prey on the assignments, once they figure them out. Really, it's very difficult - nigh-impossible, actually, given the way the system was created - to stop a well-run triple option. (Good news: Georgia Tech hasn't run it all that well this year.) However, it can be limited, generally by having excellent interior line play and by attempting to take away at least one of the options. The specifics are, as you'd expect, rather more complicated, but this isn't the post for that, not least because I don't actually really understand them.
(Side note: I can never force myself to actually sit down and learn about the triple-option. It's the football equivalent of Virginia basketball.)
Anyway, I'm excited for Joe Vellano Vs. The Option Rd. III. In his first game against the trip-op, he had 10 tackles and three TFL. In his second game, 20 tackles, including 14 solo. So he's going for the 30 on Saturday, because that's how projections work. Actually, I expect he'll probably get fewer tackles, since he's not playing centrally, so that means fewer tackles on dive handoffs and less ability to get wide and tackle the quarterback. But still, Maryland needs him at his Rolling Ball of Butcher Knives best to disrupt things as best he can.
Players to Watch
Orwin Smith, A-back, Georgia Tech. Smith has been GT's most dangerous offensive option by a country mile, averaging - get this - 9.86 yards per carry. Yes, that's scary.
Jeremiah Attaochu, WILL, Georgia Tech. Attaochu is a D.C. guy and had a great sophomore year, but has been pretty anonymous this season. Nevermind that; he's a D.C. guy, so of course he'll tear stuff up in his game at Maryland. It is known.
Nigel King, WR, Maryland. King's making his second career start, taking over for Marcus Leak. When Maryland used the option offense against N.C. State, Leak was their go-to bubble screen option. King's taken Leak's place in the lineup, so it'll be interesting to see if they look to him as often with those bubble screens.
Darius Kilgo, NT, Maryland. If there's any honest-to-goodness defense against a triple-option, it's a monstrous nose tackle. I wouldn't say Kilgo's been monstrous this year, but he's at least been good. This is a huge chance for him to announce himself at this level, and make everyone feel a lot better about a future including him as the centerpiece of the front seven.
Interestingly to me, there's seemingly a growing consensus about how this game will go, and it's not what you'd expect: most people seem to think that GT will win, but it'll be close and Maryland will be in it until the end. (At least, Dinich thinks that, a few GT fans think that, and I think that. So that's close enough to a consensus for me.) Maryland's defense isn't going to let Tech run away with it, and Maryland's offense will probably get at least one big play, maybe two, to keep things close late and make it a tense affair. Unless Tevin Washington suddenly comes alive or Shawn Petty is worse than we expect - which is gonna be tough with the low bar most people have for him - this one seems destined to be close. Whether or not Maryland can actually pull it out probably depends on, as it often does, special teams and mistakes: Can Maryland get a big play out of their special teams, like a blocked punt or big kickoff return? Can they hit their field goals while GT misses theirs? Can the defense force a Georgia Tech turnover or two to give the offense a short field? If the answers to those are yes, Maryland has an honest chance at winning this thing.
Of course, those are matters that are incredibly difficult to predict, especially given that Maryland hasn't shown any great propensity for them, unlike, say, Beamer's Virginia Tech. They are, to some degree, a matter of luck. So any rational fan looking reasonably at this game and expecting Maryland to win based on their pure merits is probably a little crazy (or more a homer than a rational fan, as many of us are). But hell, if Maryland isn't due for a lucky bounce or two, no one in the country is. So I'll make an entirely irrational prediction based on things that can't actually be predicted, and say Maryland pulls it out 20-17, with one score coming from defense/special teams and another being set up by them. Because why not?