EAST HARTFORD, CT - AUGUST 30: Yawin Smallwood #33 of the Univeristy of Connecticut Huskies celebrates with teammates Jesse Joseph #91 and Sio Moore #3 following his sack of Mike Wegzyn #11 of the University of Massachusetts Minutemen during the game on August 30, 2012 at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
What: Maryland hosts UConn looking to build on their promising 2-0 start, while the Huskies are looking for ... uh, revenge, or something, against their former coach.
When and Where: 12:30 Saturday at Byrd Stadium in College Park, Md.
Where to Watch: ACC not-a-real-Network, so check the affiliate list here. It's FOX 5 for DC and WJZ 13 for Baltimore, but it'll be carried in most East Coast markets and even some random ones (Reno?), so you may be in luck. If not, you'll be able to catch it on ESPN3 (blacked out in ACC territory).
- The Edsall Bowl. Much ado has been made about this all week, mostly from the UConn side. It seems most fans are lukewarm to Esdall at best, despite the fact that he built their program up from relative nothingness to a BCS bowl; some even actively dislike him and want to beat him into a pulp come Saturday. The Maryland hype around this will come after it's over, especially if he loses. The anti-Edsall brigade will have a lot more ammo to fire should that come to pass. And if not, that's one less bullet for him to dodge.
- Also, the Brown Bowl. And that might be the actually important one. Shortly after Edsall arrived in College Park, defensive coordinator Don Brown went the other way. Unlike Edsall, who is a relatively hands-off coach aside from the rules, Brown's tactical nous and stingy defense will have a direct, significant, maybe even deciding impact on Saturday. I assume the seniors on defense have given Locksley & Co. as much inside info as they have, which should make this an interesting battle. But, even though I'm still somewhat of a Brown fan, recall that his departure meant we were saddled with Todd Bradford for an entire season. #neverforget
- 3-0? The Terrapins have started 2-0 four times since 2002, with a variety of resulting records. But only once since the turn of the century have they started out 3-0, and that was back in the magical year of 2001. (Ignore that they also went 3-0 in 1999 under Vanderlinden and went 5-6.) Aside from omens, though, it would be quite an achievement to be undefeated heading into West Virginia. Not only would that give Maryland some quiet, most-likely-unfounded confidence of an upset in Morgantown, it would make a bowl game downright possible. Three wins in the ACC schedule would be all that's needed to make the postseason, and with games against Wake Forest, N.C. State, and BC, that's not out of the realm of possibility.
- They're back! We've talked quite a bit about the returns of Isaac Goins and Matt Robinson to the secondary this week, which is something that should hopefully shore up what's been Maryland's worst unit to start the season. Not only will it put experience on the field, it should also take some pressure off Dexter McDougle and let him take more chances, which is his M.O. to begin with. Those are two huge returns; less-discussed but maybe equally-important is the potential debut of Brandon Ross at running back, after missing the first two games with injuries. Edsall says he's probable, so I'd expect at least a few carries for him. He was the starter prior to his injury, so his presence should strengthen an already strong running back corps.
- But they're not. It sounds like Nick Ferrara, Kenny Tate, and A.J. Hendy will all have to wait another week until the West Virginia game. That's probably okay, but if they were all around I'd feel a lot more comfortable about Maryland pulling the upset. On the other side of the ball, UConn DT Shamar Stephen will return from injury against the Terps, but they'll be without backup end Ted Jennings. Maryland once again gets the short end of the injury stick.
In a Turtleshell
Maryland offense vs. UConn defense. Don Brown's done some serious work up in Storrs, transforming the Huskies' D from a somewhat average unit to a genuinely great one. The jury's still out on them being indeed one of the nation's best, but if they're not, I don't think they're far off. While UMass and N.C. State are questionable-at-best offenses, they're both still FBS opponents and should be putting up more than 10 points between them, especially given that seven of those came from a short field. The Huskies have defended 29 drives, and only a single one has gone longer than 50 yards (and even that one only got the other team three points). Even as their numbers and performances likely normalize over time, there's little reason to believe this is anything other than a particularly staunch defense.
That could pose some problems for Maryland. Things seem less apocalyptic after Maryland's 36 points on the road against Temple - only 3 of which came on a short field, by the way - but the errors committed against William and Mary still loom large in my mind. (For that matter, so do the ones against Temple.) This offense has great potential, but it's extremely unlikely that we see straight-line progression without ups and downs along the way. And UConn's defense is just the type of imposing unit that causes a young group to take a step back or two in their progression.
The Huskies don't really have a weak point, but the strongest link in the chain is undoubtedly their running defense. They've allowed less than a yard per carry in the opening two games despite breaking in two new defensive tackles - and they should get even better there with the return of Shamar Stephen, who should push for a starting spot on the inside and at least be a key reserve. Aside from the two DTs, the front seven is very experienced and very good, with five returning starters. Trevardo Williams at defensive end was second in the country in sacks/game last year, and through two games this season he's at #3 now. The guy plain wreaks havoc, but with a glut of experience around him it's tough to key in on him too much. Getting a one-on-one with Nick Klemm - or, god forbid, Mike Madaras, who's a future star but still inexperienced - would be a recipe for disaster, and you can bet that Brown will be looking to set that up any way he can.
Oh, and the secondary is arguably as good, with all four players touting starting experience. They struggled mightily at times last year, but were without star cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson and were also forced into starting freshmen Byron Jones and Ty-Meer Brown at safety. Wreh-Wilson is back and healthy, Jones and Brown are experienced and tougher to beat, and oh yeah, the other cornerback, Dwayne Gratz, was second team all-Big East last season. The end result is a much-improved bunch that's in the top 10 in pass defense so far, giving up less than 5 yards per attempt.
Maryland has two saving graces that I can see here. Well, maybe a third, too. First, as overwhelming as UConn has looked at times, they aren't very big. We saw Don Brown do the whole "smaller and faster is better" thing here, and he's continued that trend in Storrs. Their front four averages only about 260, whereas Maryland's OL goes about 295 a pop. It'll be tough to go full-on smashmouth against them given that their linebackers are as good, active, and reliable as they are, but they still run only about 230 apiece. It's a shame Tyler Cierski isn't around, since this is exactly what he needs to be used for: let him be a bowling ball and wreck into some linebackers. Expect Jeff Hernandez or maybe even someone like Devonte Campbell to try to fill that role instead.
Anyway, the moral of this story: this isn't a game for Maryland to try to get funky with zone-blocking schemes. UConn has the defensive quickness to match it, especially with the offensive line struggling to make it work against the likes of William and Mary. And I'm a Justus Pickett guy, too, so you know I'm really convinced of this. Fumble issues aside, Wes Brown (or Brandon Ross, if he's up for it) and the power running game look like Maryland's best shot at getting a real offense together. Go with the big fellas - including Pete White on occasion - and let 'em try to maul open some holes for Brown, and Maryland might just have something. Especially given that the only real inexperience on the entire defense is right down the middle.
The second silver lining is that UConn has done pretty much nothing in the way of forcing turnovers. That was one of the hallmarks of the Brown defense two years ago - in fact, it was the only thing that made it work - but the Huskies have forced only two turnovers in their opening two games. Maryland's tried to give the ball away this year, so expect that number to go up on Saturday, but I'd be much more wary of the matchup if UConn had a record of forcing turnovers. They don't, so Maryland got a bit lucky.
And that third thing, if you want to count it: Maryland might not be a better offense than State or UMass, but they are a more explosive offense. For as suffocating as UConn's been this year, they haven't run into anyone with the dynamic ability of Brown or Marcus Leak, let alone Stefon Diggs. Even if Maryland can't sustain drives, that doesn't mean they can't score with a few big plays. That's how State got their touchdown (46-yard touchdown pass) and Maryland has plenty of weapons who can break a game open at the unlikeliest of moments. If Diggs or Brown can break a big play or three, Maryland's chance of winning shoots up significantly.
UConn's offense vs. Maryland's defense. Ah, and here's the fun part. To get right to the point: UConn's offense is bad, probably as bad as Maryland's and maybe worse. As impressive as it is that UConn's allowed only one drive upwards of 50 yards, they've managed only four themselves, with six three-and-outs against State alone. They found it borderline impossible to sustain offense last week, and even against UMass they were more good-enough than actually good. (A worse defense, and only 23 points against UMass would've been a pretty tight margin.)
It's been awhile since UConn's had an actually competent QB, and so they've always relied on their running game. That's still the case now, but unlike in previous years the ground game's been horribly unproductive. The main culprit there has been the offensive line, which has struggled (and failed) to replace All-Big East performers Moe Petrus at center and Mike Ryan at left tackle. A general lack of experience and talent has led to few holes created, which has wrecked what was supposed to be Lyle McCombs' breakout season at running back. A Freshman All-American last year and a Maxwell Watch Listee this year, McCombs was a workhorse last season and looked like the next NFLer to emerge from the UConn running back factory.
But his production hasn't come close to matching that, mostly because he hasn't had lanes and - not unlike Justus Pickett - isn't strong enough or quick enough to create his own. The end result has been a completely toothless running game, averaging only 2.4 yards per carry - just #113 in the nation. And consider their opposition, too: N.C. State gave up nearly 200 yards and more than 5 ypc to Tennessee in their opener; UMass gave up more than 300 yards on the ground to Indiana, at more than 6 yards a pop. They weren't able to run against those defenses, so I doubt they'll be able to get yards against Maryland's front seven, which is 10th in the country in yards per carry despite playing a ground-focused Temple.
Lacking a running game is a problem for any team, but it's especially bad for UConn. To start with, their identity is, and has been for years now, a run-first, game-managing power ground game. This is what they do, and despite not having success doing it so far, they haven't stopped, attempting 75 rushes in the first two games. No one as inefficient as they are (or worse) has attempted as many, so it looks like UConn is going to win on the ground or lose trying.
Which is understandable given that their quarterback situation is probably even less settled than Maryland's. JuCo transfer Chandler Whitmer replaced last year's starter Johnny McEntee at QB, but he's failed to impress in the opening two weeks. Actually, his line would be solid, if unspectacular (30-52 for 58% completion, 423 yards on 8.1/attempt) if it weren't for those pesky interceptions: with five in the opening two games, he's leading the country in interceptions thrown. And oh yeah, he's yet to throw a touchdown, either.
He's not a walking disaster of a QB - anybody with 60% completion and more than 8 yards/attempt is doing something right - but he does appear to be liable to make the occasional mistake. With UConn identifying as a running team and with a mistake-prone QB playing in his first ever FBS road game, I can't see them just unleashing Whitmer and letting him throw the ball around the field. He might be able to do so, actually, given the state of Maryland's secondary, but that's a pretty big risk to take, especially with the Terrapins getting guys healthy again back there.
Taken in totality, I'm not sure there's a lot of reason for UConn to be optimistic about this matchup. Unless they suddenly discover their running game, they'll be forced to try to exploit Maryland's secondary, but they might not have the passing game to do it. Perhaps it's just the Maryland fan in me seeing this as a better matchup for the Terrapins, but some part of UConn's offense would have to improve drastically and unexpectedly for them to sustain drives come Saturday.
Players to Watch:
- Nick Williams, WR, UConn. Not only is Williams UConn's most experienced and dangerous wide receiver, he's also their return man, having taken two kickoffs for touchdowns in his career.
- Yawin Smallwood, LB, UConn. Maryland will probably try to go power run on UConn's smaller offensive line, and if they do Smallwood will be asked to step up and make a lot of solo tackles. If he consistently makes them and prevents Maryland's backs from reaching the second level, it'll make that gameplan much harder to stick to.
- Wes Brown, RB, Maryland. This is his type of game, as long as the staff is willing to put him on after last week's fumbles. UConn has the speed to neutralize most of running game, but not the power to match Brown.
- Matt Robinson, S, Maryland. Can Robinson's return help straighten things out in the secondary? Better hope so. If not, UConn might just find their passing game mojo, ala Temple.
Prediction: I feel extremely uncomfortable predicting this one, partially because I'm still unconvinced both teams are what they look like. That's part of the problem of being at this stage in the year: you know enough to draw conclusions, but not enough to actually feel confident about them. UConn's defense looks inflated; their running game should be so much better than it is; Maryland's secondary should get better, but who knows if their front seven can keep performing? Something, at some point, on either side, will break, and I have no idea which it'll be.
That said, I do think this matchup slightly favors Maryland. Earlier in the week I was expecting a UConn win, but after looking at it more I wouldn't be at all surprised to see a very tight Terps victory. Probably around 17-10 or thereabouts.