COLLEGE PARK, MD - SEPTEMBER 17: Quarterback Geno Smith #12 of the West Virginia Mountaineers celebrates after defeating the Maryland Terrapins 37-31 at Byrd Stadium on September 17, 2011 in College Park, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Remember last year, when Maryland lost to West Virginia by thismuch? When the Terrapins were one or two inopportune interceptions away from starting 2-0, breaking an eight-year winless streak against the Mountaineers, and kicking the hype machine into full gear? (Yes, it hurts to think of what could've been.)
Tough to believe that was only a season ago. Maryland will march into Morgantown this weekend for a rematch, and compared to their present circumstances that game seems like it took place in a different universe, not merely a year before. Everyone knows what happened to the Terps in the meantime; they tanked, losing lots of games and even more players. The exact opposite happened to West Virginia, who would finish out the year 9-3 as Big East Champions before dropping 70 on Clemson in a record-setting Orange Bowl victory.
And so that's how the two teams have gone from more or less even adversaries to West Virginia opening the week as 28-point favorites. That's ... a lot of points. And it can be argued (quite easily and probably successfully, in fact) that the spread is inflated and unlikely. But it's not entirely irrational.
After all, while Maryland is 2-1, they've done it in less-than-impressive circumstances. The one-point win over William and Mary, a close victory over an unimpressive Temple, and then dropping a winnable home game to UConn, a team in the bottom 20 nationally in both passing and rushing offense, a team who had just lost at home to a lackluster N.C. State. WVU, on the other hand, picked up right where they left off, putting up 69 on in-state rival Marshall and easily handling James Madison.
They possess perhaps the nation's most dynamic offense, a bunch of talented skill players and a legitimate Heisman contender at quarterback. And they'll be facing a Maryland secondary that has looked questionable against two of the nation's worst passing offenses.
Like I said: you might want to gird your loins, folks. This one might not be pleasant.
I'm not trying to sound defeatist, by the way. There just aren't a lot of bright spots for Maryland to look for here. Geno Smith has completed 88% of his passes in the opening two games, possesses the second-highest QB rating in the country, and is surrounded by the same dynamic bunch of skill players that tore Maryland apart the past two seasons: Stedman Bailey and Ivan McCartney at wide receiver, Shawne Alston and Andrew Buie at running back, and ... oh yeah, Tavon Austin, who averaged 208 all-purpose yards the last two times he faced Maryland.
The end result: a really, really good offense. How good? Fourth in scoring offense, third in total offense, second in yards per play, second in passing offense, and second in yards per carry. They pass the ball a lot - upwards of 40 times a game, good for 15th in the country - and are really, really good at it, in part thanks to Smith and in part thanks to Dana Holgerson's scheme. Holgo's variant of the Air Raid - which eschews the focus on shallow crosses in favor of deeper or disguised routes, play-action, and more backs - settles in quickly to begin with but becomes more dangerous with time, when the offense truly understands it and can react instead of think. Coming up with a scheme to stop it is a Herculean task, unless the defense athletically or physically outclasses WVU. Maryland's does neither.
If Don Brown was still in town, especially after seeing what he did last week to Maryland, I'd feel more comfortable. An athletic, attacking defense, especially one that can bring all kinds of disguised blitzes (especially zone), is one of the better ways to try to counteract Holgo's offense, as it makes it difficult to make adjustments at the line and can force the QB into rushed decisions. We haven't yet seen a lot of that from Brian Stewart's scheme. If he has some crazy disguised blitzes in his stable, now would be a good time to bring them out.
For what it's worth, having Kenny Tate back in pads would be a godsend here. Alex Twine has played well, but he's a traditional linebacker and is seriously lacking when asked to cover. Tate, who can cover very well but also make a difference blitzing, would let Stewart get a bit more creative and help to keep WVU on its toes. It'd also allow Maryland to maybe even drop him a bit further back, or even bring on another DB to morph into a sort-of 3-3-5 on occasion.
But the concern will still be the secondary, and with good reason. If Maryland's blitzes can't get to Smith, I have trouble seeing the Terrapins' defensive backfield dealing well with the wealth of options at his disposal. Maryland's yet to face a passing offense outside of the bottom 15 in the country, and even then Dexter McDougle and the DBs struggled. This is a real trial by fire.
Speaking of, the same thing is happening on the other side of the ball for Maryland's offense. This is the first truly hostile environment for most of these players - Perry Hills, Wes Brown, Stefon Diggs, Albert Reid - and Morgantown doesn't have a reputation as a nice place to play. It will be loud, the fans will be unruly, and the defense won't be half-bad either.
At first glance, the Mountaineers' D - which has a new defensive coordinator and is transitioning away from the 3-3-5 into more of a 3-4* - actually looks quite bad: 60th in scoring defense, 74th in rushing defense, 92nd in passing defense, 86th in total defense. Part of the problem, though, is that they score so quickly the defense is almost always on the field. They've had to defend 87 plays per game; only Baylor, Louisiana-Lafayette, and Houston have had to face more. Break it down per play, and the defense isn't half bad: 43rd in yards/play, 40th in yards per carry, 58th in yards per pass attempt.
(*If this isn't a good omen, I don't know what is: that new defensive coordinator took their best player, senior safety Terence Garvin, and moved him to STAR. Not kidding. Unfortunately, he doesn't appear to be Todd Bradford.)
But don't let that intimidate you too much: they've only played Marshall and JMU so far. JMU's a decent offense as far as FCS schools go, but it's still an FCS school. And Marshall put up fewer points and yards against Ohio than against the 'Eers (though obviously WVU taking its foot off the gas played a role there). Looking at the personnel, they're not all that imposing: gone from last year is sack-master defensive end Bruce Irvin, leading tackler Najee Goodee, and shutdown cornerback Keith Tandy. That's forced a three-star true freshman into starting at safety, but the big difference is that West Virginia's defense lacks the star power of last year's.
I'll say mostly what I said last week: the power run game makes sense for this game. It's the best part of Maryland's offense, and once again their opposition has a somewhat small front seven. The three across the defensive line goes 290, but the linebackers are super-small (only about 225 a pop); Maryland, with the same scheme, is about 10 pounds heavier across their front seven, and Maryland's 295-average offensive line should be able to do some mauling. That's especially the case if bowling ball fullback Tyler Cierski is healthy again and if Josh Cary or Peter White get a look at guard. Doing so will take pressure off Perry Hills and give Maryland a chance to possess the ball, limiting the number of possessions in the game and tiring WVU's defense. Once that rhythm is established, Stefon Diggs should get looks on screens, reverses, and quick slants - maybe the occasional deep ball, if WVU's safeties are cheating up. With the aforementioned true freshman Karl Joseph at free safety, they could be vulnerable to that, as long as Hills can get the ball down the field.
But hey, here's a nice silver lining: West Virginia is awful at special teams for some reason! They're 77th at punt returns so far (averaging less than 7 per return) and 109th in kick returns. And it's not like they punt often, but when they do they're apparently the worst in the country at doing so, and they're below average at both punt and kick coverage.
In other words: keep an eye out for Stefon Diggs' first return touchdown.
But my big reason for optimism, if you can call it that: really, West Virginia hasn't proven much this year.
Yeah, they took Marshall to the cleaners. Marshall then lost to Ohio. (Who, in their defense, is quite good and could beat Maryland this year if the two were to play.) And then they beat JMU by 30. JMU's a good FCS team, but still an FCS team.
Hey, their resumé is better than Maryland's. It's not as if you can look at their opponents and think that their lack of tough opposition invalidates the beatdowns they've applied this year; Maryland's schedule hasn't been that much tougher and they've looked much less convincing, really.
But they're yet to face a team with Maryland's athletic ability or dynamic weapons. They're yet to face a team that has BCS talent, that can match them step-for-step physically. Maryland has those weapons, has that talent, can do those things. That doesn't mean Maryland will win, but it does mean it should be more of a challenge than the raw numbers may lead you to believe.
At least, that's what the optimist inside me is telling myself. And I'm not in a mood to argue with him.