MORGANTOWN, WV - SEPTEMBER 22: Tavon Austin #1 of the West Virginia Mountaineers carries the ball for a touchdown in the first half against the Maryland Terrapins during the game on September 22, 2012 at Mountaineer Field in Morgantown, West Virginia. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Maryland entered Saturday's game against West Virginia as four-touchdown underdogs. Very few thought the game would be close. Surprisingly, it was, and that it was is a great credit to the Terrapins' potential and moxie.
But when a young and flawed team plays a top-10 opponent that largely outclasses them across the field, at their own house, there's no room for error. Flawless execution is required. And Maryland, between dropped first downs, fumbles that turned into West Virginia points and took Maryland out of scoring position, killer penalties, and missed field goals, simply made too many mistakes. In the end, three touchdowns from historical Terrapin-killer Tavon Austin was enough for the Mountaineers, who'll escape with a 31-21 win.
That score, however, is a little harsh on Maryland, given that those couple of errors were so impactful in the result. By the run of play, this game was much closer than 10 points. Seven of those points, by the way, came from a fluky Maryland fumble returned for a touchdown; the Mountaineers' supposedly unstoppable offense, considered by many to be the best in the country, was held to only 24 points and had four three-and-outs.
Essentially, the Terrapins beat themselves today. And, for a team that was four-score 'dogs on the road against a Heisman contender QB and a Big 12 favorite, that's a positive sign, in a roundabout way. You can't fix being outclassed, but you most certainly can fix what's wrong with Maryland right now - their own mistakes.
Maryland's defense set the tone of this game, and credit has to go both to Brian Stewart and the front seven (often six, actually) for the game they called/played. It wasn't a masterclass, but it was better than many, many teams will do against a very good offense. The crux of the plan was clearly to get athletes on the field (they often ran a 3-3-5) and pressure Geno Smith, which would force him into poor decisions and poor throws. Zone coverage behind the blitzers provided extra coverage and prevented them from being picked apart consistently.
For the most part, it worked. Maryland got to Smith early and often, usually roughing him up in the process. One of the biggest strengths for the Terrapins' defense is their physicality and toughness - it's one thing they have in bunches, even in the secondary - and they used it to great effect today. West Virginia was clearly thrown off by that physicality and it let Maryland's defense dictate the game for long stretches. Their downfall all year has been the secondary, and it was the same today: usually it was good, but if they were asked to defend for more than a few seconds things would usually fall apart. A few missed assignments were usually to blame for WVU's big plays, but that was something that was unfortunately bound to happen in this matchup.
Offensively, there are still problem areas, especially with turnovers. Maryland had three today, with the first two killing a Maryland drive in West Virginia territory and resulting in points for the Mountaineers. We're at a point where Randy Edsall should have every skill player - every single one, no matter whether they've fumbled or not, no matter where they are on the depth chart - walk around campus with a football tucked in their arm. A lot of mistakes can be attributed to youth, including these I suppose. But the fix for fumbles is too easy to see this continue throughout the year.
Otherwise, with the exception of a few blips here and there (zone reads and the lack of Wes Brown, namely), the offense was actually quite encouraging. Perry Hills played a surprisingly good game, going 20-29 for upwards of 300 yards and two TDs. If Hills didn't show up today, there would've been questions about his job security heading into the bye week. But he more than showed up - he showed, yet again, marked improvement from last week. This isn't the first time I've said this, but I count every game where I'm not questioning who the starter will be next week as a significant victory.
Oh, and Stefon Diggs is an absolute superstar. He's something special.
Perhaps some people will read my optimism as homerism. Especially because Maryland was awful last year, too - results have to come at some point, right? Well, right, but this year's team is in this predicament precisely because of last year's team. Last season wasn't a rebuilding year - it was an imploding year. Things are only now starting to be rebuilt. And yes, it's going to be frustrating when Maryland shoots themselves in the foot time after time. But that they're in these positions to start with his hugely encouraging. And once they have the depth and experience to compete - next year, hopefully - it'll be all the more rewarding if they learn from these mistakes.
I'll finish with one note: this was a game Maryland shouldn't have been in. Instead, they almost won. Teams in the ACC - Wake Forest, UNC, Virginia, N.C. State - won't be nearly as good as West Virginia, and Maryland will be much more experienced when the Terrapins face them. This bunch won't be embarrassed in ACC play by any stretch.