Maryland Terrapins-West Virginia Mountaineers Preview: Terps Look to Break WVU Losing Streak

Patrick McDermott - Getty Images

What: Maryland travels to West Virginia as four-touchdown underdogs to the Mountaineers, looking for a statement upset win. Though I'd take a close loss, myself.

When and Where: 12:00, Milan Puskar Field, Morgantown, Wv.

Where to Watch: FX

Notes/Storylines:

  • Six straight. Maryland's dropped six in a row to the Mountaineers, having lost every contest since their 74-14 double-victory back in '03-'04. That's a really long time to go winless against close-to-bitter rivals. With any luck, it's a losing streak that'll break here.
  • Speaking of: rivalry? Both sides seem fairly apathetic on this being a "rivalry," and dare I say it's morphing into more of a regional struggle than a true rivalry. Good to reach this stage after the two teams are on the schedule for another five years. Another WVU beatdown won't do much to rectify those feelings, but a big upset win by Maryland in Morgantown? That would reignite some of the belligerence.
  • A real test. Maryland's had their first big test of the year with UConn, dropping a game they very easily could've won. But they haven't run into anything like what West Virginia looks like this year: a passing powerhouse with a solid defense, a Heisman contender, and a real chance at being a BCS contender. Maryland's secondary has been pretty coddled at this point, but they're about to get thrown ino the deep end.
  • Injuries. Kenny Tate's (probably) back! Kerry Boykins is out. Full report here.

In a Turtleshell

Maryland offense vs. West Virginia defense. Two words spring to mind when I look at West Virginia's defense: moving parts.

After Jeff Casteel left Morgantown for Arizona in the offseason, former Oklahoma State assistant Joe DeForest was handed the reins - his first defensive coordinator gig ever, mind you. He scrapped Casteel's trademark 3-3-5 for a more traditional 3-4 look, which occasionally shifts to a 4-3 or even a 5-2 or sorts. In addition to revolutionizing their scheme, the 'Eers have had to replace most of their defensive difference-makers from last year, including sack-master defensive end Bruce Irvin, leading tackler Najee Goodee, and top cornerback Keith Tandy. Oh, and in a rather Bradfordian move, they've moved their best returning player, Terence Garvin, from safety down to STAR, which isn't dissimilar to the role Kenny Tate played last year.

So like I said, moving parts. People are breaking in new positions, new starters are finding the field, new schemes are being introduced, and even a true freshman or two is seeing the field in crucial situations. It's like where Maryland's defense is, only with less experience.

Partially thanks to that, it's tough to tell what to really expect out of WVU's defense tomorrow. Most of these guys have never been tested in this look prior to this year, and this season they've faced only cupcake games to this point, with mixed results. A mediocre Marshall team put up big yardage and more than 30 points (thanks in part to WVU getting a big early lead and taking their foot off the gas) in the opener, before easily dealing with a non-threatening James Madison team. I don't know if Maryland's offense will be that much tougher of a test than either of those two, but that defense is just as uncertain.

Just like against UConn, this is a game where it makes sense for Maryland to try to establish the running game. For one, Perry Hills is still struggling to pass to begin with, and West Virginia's secondary - save for true freshman safety Karl Joseph - is probably their most experienced unit. It's the 'Eers front seven that could be ripe to exploit: they're pretty small and are still trying to break in a few new starters.

Unlike UConn, WVU doesn't have killer athleticism or Don Brown calling the shots behind the scenes. That should make things a bit easier on the Terrapins, as it'll give them more options, including utilizing the stretch running game that they've relied on this year. But with Tyler Cierski back in the lineup, Wes Brown hitting his rhythm, and Brandon Ross completely healthy, the Terps are probably best off running it right at WVU. I've been saying this for awhile now, but until the line can effectively block for a zone scheme, that'll be true most days. It's especially true against a team that utilizes a three-man front and has small-ish linebackers, including a former safety like Garvin. Here's hoping we see a fair amount of I-form.

Problem is, few teams can sustain that. With West Virginia's offense as deadly as it is, there's a good chance they'll jump out to an early lead. Once teams start losing touching distance, they have to start airing it out to try to catch up. That's a game Maryland cannot play. Keeping it close will be critical.

And once Maryland does establish a rhythm in the ground game, they can start to let Hills loose a bit with some play-action, especially looking for Matt Furstenburg (preferably for that same seam route he scored on against Temple) and either Stefon Diggs or Marcus Leak over the middle, who have emerged as his favored targets.

Due to West Virginia's offense aptitude and Maryland's own struggles, though, there's no room for error on Saturday. Mistakes like fumbles, interceptions, or playcalling blunders will sink Maryland's chances. This is as much about execution as anything else for Maryland.

West Virginia offense vs. Maryland defense. The longer teams play in Dana Holgorsen's scheme, the more effective it gets. That's true of most systems, but it's especially the case with Holgo's which is based on hyper-repetition and reacting instead of thinking. Once muscle memory, for lack of a better term, sets in, it can be darn near impossible to stop.

That explains how an offense that put up 37 points on Maryland at the start of last year finished the season by dropping 70 on Clemson. This is more or less the same offense that played Maryland last season, but it's markedly more dangerous now that Geno Smith (and everyone else) has been in the program for a year. And outside of a few offensive linemen, almost everyone from last year is indeed back.

That includes one of the better collection of skill players in the country, with Ivan McCartney, Stedman Bailey, and of course Tavon Austin providing some top-notch weapons for Smith. Austin has a habit of ripping Maryland a new one, but Bailey and McCartney are just as dangerous as more traditional down-the-field options. It's an embarrassment of riches, and with Maryland's secondary as troubled as it's been lately, defending them may not be a feasible task.

The smarter way is to try to disguise blitzes and pressure Smith. That's a dangerous task; if a defense brings too many blitzers and doesn't get to him, Smith will pick the secondary apart. And so far, that's what's happened: Smith's been taken down only once so far this season. Maryland is drastically better and more dangerous defensively than either Marshall or JMU was, though, and they'll probably like their odds at getting to the quarterback. Still, with the secondary needing cover, the bigger factor when blitzing isn't to bring more. It's to bring them in the right places. UConn did that masterfully last Saturday, and Maryland will need to take a page from their book. If Smith can get a bit confused by the pressure and roughed up a little, the entire tenor of the game changes.

I do have a sneaking suspicion that Holgorsen has something of an ace up his sleeve in the running game, though. It's not a big component for WVU, and it's in the back of most defenses' minds when they prepare for Geno Smith and the Air Raid. But it's been highly effective when called upon this year, averaging upwards of 7 yards per carry. Smith can make plays with his legs, and there's a thunder and lightning combo in Shawne Alston and Andrew Buie that's been highly successful so far. I trust Maryland will be a more stifling defense than either Marshall or JMU was, especially against the run, but if they get overly aggressive WVU can fight back in the ground game.

Players to Watch:

Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia. Historically a Terrapin-killer, Austin's a handful for any defense. How Maryland tries to counter him, I don't know. It'll be interesting to see if Brian Stewart cooks anything up.

Karl Joseph, S, West Virginia. A true freshman and traditional playmaking safety - big hits, big plays, big mistakes - it'll be interesting to see if Maryland's willing to go deep to test him. I don't know if Perry Hills has the arm, but I'd wager Joseph will make at least one high-profile error on Saturday.

Brandon Ross, RB, Maryland. He's supposedly healthy now, and Maryland's staff clearly likes him a lot. If they run the ball as much as they should, expect him to get plenty of carries.

Darin Drakeford, LB, Maryland. If there's a hole in WVU's offense, especially on its line, it could be left tackle Quinton Spain, who'll make only the fourth start of his career tomorrow. If Maryland wants to get pressure on Smith, Drakeford and Vellano/Francis on Spain should be the best way to do it.

Prediction: This matchup is not an unmitigated disaster from Maryland's point of view - far from it, in fact, there are some possible redeeming bright spots they can look to exploit: WVU is yet to be seriously tested this season, especially not by high-level athletes like Maryland's; the Terrapins' running game should be able to find a foothold; and maybe, just maybe, they can get some pressure on Geno Smith and disrupt the otherwise-deadly Air Raid passing attack.

But there's no room for error. If they can't pressure Smith, if they can't run the ball consistently and successfully, if they can't get a few big plays from Diggs and the special teams unit, if they can't avoid penalties, if they can't avoid coaching blunders, they can't win the game. If any one of those goes the wrong way, West Virginia will almost certainly have enough of an advantage to win. And if two or more don't work out, the scoreline could get ugly. I don't think that happens, but it's not close, either. I'll say West Virginia 42, Maryland 23.

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