The folks at The Smoking Musket, aside from possessing one of the best blog names on the internets, are the rara-est of avis-es: West Virginia fans that you won't hate and attempt to punch. Quite the contrary, in fact, they're a perfectly likable crew. Country Roads - a writer over at TSM, in this case, and not the annoying song - virtually sat down with us to exchange a few questions on this Saturday's upcoming Maryland-West Virginia showdown in Morgantown, which is a less-than-tantalizing matchup from a Terps perspective. What Mr. Roads shares with us may not make you much more optimistic about the conest, but he will make you much more informed about how good West Virginia's looked so far - and how the Terrapins could potentially beat them.
Our own half of the answers are over here, but first read on to see a West Virginia perspective about the "rivalry," how dangerous Geno Smith can be, how Maryland's offense can exploit the 'Eers defense, and much more.
TT: This is the most frightening matchup for me on Maryland's schedule, for one big reason: WVU's passing game. The Terrapins' secondary is makeshift at best and has struggled to contain some of the nation's worst passing attacks. What a fit and firing Geno Smith will do to them, now that Dana Holgerson's scheme is firmly in place, is a terrifying thought. How deadly has WVU's passing offense looked in the opening two games, and do you expect it to keep that pace? Is there any effective way to counter it?
TSM: Everyone always said Dana Holgorsen's offenses improve leaps and bounds from year 1 to year 2, and so far it looks like they're right. The Marshall game was pretty much an offensive clinic, and the passing attack showed no signs of letting up against JMU. Smith just looks fantastic right now---checking out of bad plays into good ones, moving around in the pocket to avoid pressure, and making smart, accurate throws that put our receivers into position to gain yards after the catch.
However, being a lifelong WVU fan, I know the chance for disaster can be waiting right around the corner. A couple third quarter drives against JMU stalled quickly and we gave up a safety (on a questionable called off-tackle run by Shawne Alston), and going back to last year, teams like USF, Cincy and Pitt were really able to slow us down and Syracuse created a bunch of turnovers. At this point, I'd say the way to counter our passing attack is to bring zone blitzes and hope to pressure Geno into bad decisions. Given time, he's going to find the open man and move the ball but in the past teams have had some success in forcing turnovers and playing ball control, then getting a big play on special teams to swing the momentum.
TT: Speaking of Geno Smith: it looks like he's a serious Heisman contender this year. Do you seem him making a real run for it?
TSM: I was actually talking about this over lunch today. He's clearly in the driver's seat right now after an awful performance by Matt Barkley and the disappearance of Montee Ball and Denard Robinson. But his chances over the course of the season I think are directly tied to WVU's success in the Big 12. We can probably lose a game or two as long as Smith plays well (e.g. Smith goes 30-35 for 350 yards and 3 TD with 0 INT, but WVU loses 42-38) but if we drop 3 or 4 games and/or Smith plays poorly in the losses, he's probably done. I will say that given our new conference, the offense we run, his preseason hype, and the lack of other viable contenders, (apologies to Pat White, Steve Slaton and Major Harris) he's probably the best shot we've ever had.
TT: West Virginia's sporting a new defensive coordinator this year with Joe DeForest, who replaces the highly-successful Jeff Casteel. Breaking in a new scheme and trying to replace Bruce Irvin, Najee Godee, and Keith Tandy, WV's defense has been okay but not great in the opening two weeks. What type of performance are you expecting from this bunch this year? Is there a weak spot Maryland could look to exploit?
Basically, I'm hoping for a defense that creates turnovers and gets key stops. I know we're going to give up yards and points. I just hope there are enough key plays to give our offense a chance to win. Losing those guys you mentioned as well as lineman Julian Miller are certainly key, but I think we have some talent on our defense. We may be young and smallish, but I think we have some speed and play with aggression and toughness. That being said, I have no delusions of finishing in the top half in total defense...or any other kind of defense, really. Just win the turnover battle every week and that should keep us in most games.
If I'm attacking the WVU defense, I try to control the ball with a power running game to exploit our young defensive line and smallish linebackers. Then I go play-action to test the young safeties and much-maligned corners. In particular, short passes to tight ends up the seam or off play-action seem to have been successful as well. Thankfully Vernon Davis has been gone for a while or he could be a nightmare for this defense.
TT: Dana Holgerson said on Monday that the rivalry with Maryland "is still there" and of course the two teams are scheduled to play through 2017. That latter fact splits Maryland fans somewhat; some want to get back to beating you guys, while others think the series doesn't have too many benefits for us: we lose, more often than not, and continuing to play only makes WVU's job poaching local recruits all the easier. I fall in the latter camp, myself. How do WV fans view the rivalry and the recent decision to renew it long-term?
Frankly, most of the state is divided between hating Pitt and hating Virginia Tech. We have definitely had some great games with Maryland and you all have had more than your fair share of success against us, but I don't know too many folks who think of you as a "rival." It's a nice regional game, but I'd put the Terps behind Pitt and VT and probably right there with Penn State and Virginia in terms of teams I'd like to see WVU play out of conference. In an ideal world, I'd like to see WVU and Maryland play twice out of every six years or so. Of course, having previously signed a long-term deal with ECU under previous AD Ed Pastilong, we are pretty hamstrung in terms of scheduling those types of games.
TT: We obviously know about Smith and Maryland natives Tavon Austin and Terence Garvin. Who are two names, one on both side of the ball, we should know about on Saturday?
TSM: On offense, you might hear Stedman Bailey's name called quite a few times. He actually had more receiving yards and touchdowns last year than Austin did, and he's currently leading FBS in receiving yards per game. Having played high school football with Smith, the two of them have a great connection and give WVU a phenomenal 3-headed monster on offense.
The other name I will go with is our center, Joe Madsen. Our line hasn't been very good the last few years, but so far Smith has yet to be sacked and Madsen is a big reason why. It seems like he has done a very good job of picking up the new offense and getting the line in the right blocking scheme to help protect Geno, which is obviously essential to our offensive success.
On defense, redshirt freshman linebacker Isaiah Bruce has really come into his own this year. The 3-4 defense fits his aggressive style well as it allows him to roam free, find the ball and make plays as opposed to playing assignment football in the old 3-3-5. He led the team in tackles against Marshall and had 9 more against JMU.
Also, keep an eye on true freshman safety Karl Joseph. The last true freshman we started at safety was Robert Sands, and he went on to get drafted by the Bengals. Joseph is still learning the defense, but plays hard and absolutely lays the wood on ballcarriers in the open field. He will make his fair share of mistakes, but he seems to make up for those with big plays.
TT: Prediction time: who are you taking? (Or rather, how much do you think West Virginia will by?)
TSM: Our site manager, WVUIE97, always goes with "22-20" but I'm a little more bold than he is. After last week, though, I'm not sure what to expect in terms of point production. The line is somewhere around 28, but I don't think we cover. I'm going to say 45-27 and hope I'm wrong about not covering.
Many thanks to TSM and CR for taking the time to answer our questions. Go over and read up on our own thoughts over at TSM.