Stefon Diggs. He is the truth, the light and the way. A shining beacon of hope, the sun and the stars, our hero in the night. He embodies, simply, what is right with Maryland football right now.
We knew he was good, obviously. But up until Saturday I had some sneaking suspicions that he was getting a bit more hype than he'd deserved. Not anymore: he's as good a true freshman as there is in the country, without doubt. His first touchdown was impressive, by anyone's standard: pull in the pass, get to the edge, and use speed to erase the angle before an Adrian Moten-inspired Superman leap into the endzone.
But the second touchdown? Genuinely spectacular, from the six or so Mountaineers he embarrassed to the near-instantaneous change-of-direction, and from the speed to outrun an entire secondary to the nonchalant facemask-adjustment mid-run. Watch and enjoy, via SBN Central:
He's not perfect, as evidenced by his muffed punt and a few strange decisions in the return game. But those are problems that will be worked out in time, and it's a lot easier to get an immensely confident guy to simmer down a tad than to get a timid one to come out of his shell. Diggs will be here for another three years, and he'll get a lot better in that time. That fact should frighten everyone in the ACC a heck of a lot - and, for that matter, West Virginia, too.
Perry Hills. Dare I say it? Yes, I think I will: Hills downright looked like an ACC-level starting quarterback yesterday. Like I say, any day I don't question him as the starting quarterback is a good day. And when I actually feel confident with him under center? That's significantly outperforming expectations.
There are qualifications, of course. His deep ball still isn't there, usually lofted and underthrown. He doesn't read defenses well at the line either, though I wonder whether he has that leeway from the staff anyway. Oh, and for some reason he struggles a lot with zone-read options (I'm not concerned) and bubble screens (I am). But those are things that should improve as he gets older and stronger. What's encouraging about this game is that we now know there's a base for him to build upon.
His final stat line: 20-29 for 305 yards and three touchdowns, with one interception that was more or less meaningless. (And remember that two big completions were wiped out, one by a drop and another by a procedural penalty.) That's a 185 QB rating, significantly better than his Heisman-contending counterpart. In fact, only seven players in the country have put up a 185 QBR against an AQ team (not named Colorado), and their names are Pachall, McCarron, Ash, Bridgewater, Murray, Manuel, and Klein. Ain't bad company.
Qualitatively, it was striking how much better he looked in making reads in intermediate routes. He throws a rope on those routes, it's just about finding the right guy to throw it to. He did that more often than not on Saturday - there were no who was that to? passes - and that's why his numbers were so much better than they've been. Just like he's done all year, he's significantly improved on his weakest areas week-to-week.
Oh, and if you think I'm being too nice, go look at what a few visiting By-Godders had to say about him. He's already shown an ability to improve upon his flaws, and they're exactly right: this experience will be invaluable in a year's time. When he'll be Maryland's starter. (Which I won't guarantee, but feel is likely.)
Devin Burns. Low bar? Maybe. But coaches always talk about taking advantage of opportunities, and Burns, who got one play after Hills got his bell rung, did just that. He ran a zone-read option, a play that Maryland must've run a dozen times with Hills, each more ineffective than the last, and took it for 17 yards and a first down. That was the end of Burns' afternoon, but you have to wonder if that big play might've grabbed Mike Locksley's attention. Not as a starter, obviously; Hills is doing okay. But if Maryland is committed to the zone-read, Burns can clearly do it well. With a bye week coming up, I wouldn't be shocked if the staff toys with a Wildcat QB set - especially because Diggs could go in the backfield as well, and that would be an easy way to get him the ball.
Maryland's defense. All of them. Okay, not all, but almost everyone. The defensive line deserves a lot of credit; A.J. Francis and Joe Vellano (six solo tackles) were everywhere. And the same for the linebackers, who saw a masterful performance from Demetrius Hartsfield. And you know what, I'll even give the secondary props. They broke down too much for my liking, but that's bound to happen some against West Virginia. More importantly, Dexter McDougle returned to form, breaking up two passes and making a critical tackle in the flat (and often performing mop-up duty with eight solo tackles).
Think about this: coming into the game, West Virginia had averaged 56 points and 612 yards per game, allowing only a single sack (and that was the second-string). Yesterday? Maryland held them to 24 points and 363 yards, sacking Smith twice and putting him on his back much more than that. That's a largely pedestrian showing for the vast majority of offenses. For an Air Raid attack designed by Dana Holgorsen and powered by a "Heisman contender" quarterback and some of the most dynamic weapons in the country, it's almost embarrassing.
Maryland's physicality was clearly a shock to WVU, and the plan to rough them up worked quite well. Aside from a few I unfortunately have to single out later, just give everybody a Stock Up. Great showing.
Kenneth Tate. Apparently that's his name now. And I did want to take a bit of time to single him out. Not because he was the best defensive player; he wasn't. But he didn't look out of place in his first game back in about a year, and I like how he was used by Brian Stewart as a roaming, play-making linebacker, almost a safety at times. Expect him to get some of the rust off as the season wears on; assuming he does, he can be a difference-maker for a defense that was already very good.
Brian Stewart. A masterstroke? Not quite. But Maryland's defensive coordinator showed some interesting blitz packages, did a good job of confusing Smith (not an easy task) and oversaw an all-around quite good performance against one of the better offenses in the country. He let things get a little too vanilla on occasion, and WVU usually made him pay for it. But the more time he has to work with the defense, the better they'll get the system down and he'll feel free to mix things up a little more. What matters is that he got results, and he did it by being creative and daring - even using a bit of 3-3-5 that worked quite well.
Matt Furstenburg. Whether you call him Furst Down, Furstenten, or Furstdownburg, he's back in the game. He should be one of Hills' top targets, and he got getting the targets to reflect that status. He's nothing if not reliable, and Maryland could use some reliability.
The Stormterpers. Count me in on this (or a variant of this) being the go-to look for the biggest away game every year. Attractive with a touch of class.
Mike Locksley. A lot will probably disagree with me on this assessment, and I can't really argue with them too much. This case is as borderline as borderline gets, at least as I see it. And I'm certainly happier with him than I was last week. Yesterday's playcalling was devoid of the headscratchers we saw against UConn, and instead it was relatively straightforward and reliable. That said, it was also far from inspiring. Still, his personnel isn't great and this serves as a reminder that Locksley can be a competent, if not all that exciting, BCS-level offensive coordinator. It's just one major problem, one I hope gets fixed soon, that keeps him from being in Stock Up: Stefon Diggs, the best player on Maryland's offense by a country mile, getting only three touches. I'll talk about that more in a second with a dose of caveats, but it is a genuine problem.
Wes Brown. A flashback to week one here. The bad news is that he got only two carries, despite looking like Maryland's best back based on the entire body of work. The good news is that the #FreeWes campaign is up and running once again.
Maryland's other running backs. In particular, Brandon Ross and Justus Pickett. Neither showed too terribly much, certainly not that they should be getting (when you throw in Albert Reid) 28 touches that don't go to Brown. But I don't want to be too harsh, because they showed some flashes. Ross had a few runs that displayed the toughness and elusiveness (think he broke the B button in the second quarter) that the staff clearly likes. As for Pickett, he's done well to find his niche as a third-down back, which fits his skillset quite well. I'm not jumping up and down about their futures, especially if it comes at the expense of Brown's, but Maryland has a stable of competent backs, and there's something to be said for that.
Matt Robinson. Robinson has a reputation as a quarterback-of-the-defense type, and maybe he is. Maybe he settled down the secondary a bunch and is a big part of their revival; I certainly think his presence has helped McDougle. And I admit that that's a possibility, so I don't want this to come across too strongly. But when a player misses a tackle as badly as Robinson missed his tackle on Tavon Austin's first touchdown, it's really tough to stick him anywhere else. If you get a good shot at someone like Austin, you've gotta take him down; you can't just launch yourself at him and hope he goes down. He can make you pay for that, and did.
Whatever happened on Austin's second touchdown. It looked like there was a miscommunication somewhere. Jeremiah Johnson was playing zone; whoever was supposed to be the safety on that play, Robinson I believe, clearly wasn't. Who was wrong? I don't know, probably Johnson given how Edsall reacted on the sideline. But somebody messed up bad.
Special teams. A missed field goal from Brad Craddock is the real killer here. Craddock's not a born kicker (he's a former Aussie Rules punter) so he's learning on the spot, but either Nick Ferrara needs to get healthy or Craddock needs to improve ... fast.
Ball security. Every player who could conceivably hold a ball in a game needs to walk around campus with one for the entire two weeks of practice coming up. That means every quarterback, every receiver, every tight end, every running back. Maryland is losing two fumbles a game so far this year on average, with another fumble that they manage to recover. That's just asking to lose. Do that every week, and failures will follow. Oh, and speaking of ball security:
Marcus Leak. I like Leak a lot and think he's going to be a very good #2 to Stefon Diggs in time. But a dropped first down and fumbling another away? Can't defend it. It's probably a concentration thing and improvable. He has a lot of potential, just needs to get the butterfingers sorted out.
Whatever the plan is to get Stefon Diggs the ball. This was a problem last week, too. It's been a problem every week since the opener. Randy Edsall said they needed to get him the ball more after W+M, after UConn, and then again today; we're still waiting for it to happen. And look, when the guy scores on 2/3 of his offensive touches, he should probably be getting more than 3 touches.
And I know it's hard, believe me when I say I'm not trying to be over the top about this. Teams will focus in on Diggs relentlessly, because they know he's dangerous and because they know no one else on Maryland is good enough to truly threaten them. But Mike Locksley's getting paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to run the best version of Maryland's offense, and the best version of Maryland's offense includes more than 3 touches and 5 targets for their best player. I'm not asking him to magic up some room for Diggs down the field, but moving him into the backfield, doing some bubble screens, motion option plays, letting him run past a defender on play-action (which, to his credit, Locks called once but should've gone back to) are all viable calls that aren't being done enough.
I'm not even asking for masterful play design. The beauty of Stefon Diggs is that he's a true something-out-of-nothing player. He doesn't need to be wide open; he can be nearly wrapped up and I still wouldn't put a big play past him. Just give him the chance.
Ditto Wes Brown. The whole running back-by-committee thing seems like the staff is outthinking itself, getting too cute with the rotation and the specified roles. That stuff's all well and good when no one has separated from the pack, but Brown has separated. You have Pickett averaging 3.2 ypc, Ross at 2.6, Reid at 2.2, and Brown at ... 5.5. That's not close. It's gone on long enough: whatever other problems the staff believes Brown to have, he can learn on the fly. He gets yards and scores points. Maryland can't afford to keep burying its most effective weapons.
Perry Hills on the zone-read. Don't take this as a criticism of Hills; not every player is great at everything and I'm okay with that. Not to kick up the ol' DOB debate (DOBate?), but Danny O'Brien wasn't a zone-read QB, just as C.J. Brown wasn't a pocket passer. Asking them to do those things was silly. (And therefore Gary Crowton did just that.) And Hills just plain isn't a good zone-read QB. He makes the wrong read an alarming amount, if not all the time then at least a majority. I'm at the point where I'm not even sure if they're real options, or if it's just a decoy - basically, a play-action on a run. I'm half-joking at that, but only half-.
He's not going to learn how to do this overnight, so don't make him worry about it and kill the offense in the process. Either stop calling those plays, or let Devin Burns go back there on occasion. But don't keep asking Hills to do something he's clearly not comfortable doing.
Terence Garvin, the guy who had the late cheap shot on Hills. Booooooooooo. Even if you buy that he didn't hear the whistle ... well, way to showboat after blindsiding a guy who'd stopped playing, champ.
Actually, Garvin's not really to blame here (though he should've had better sense than to celebrate). The problem was the referees, who blew the whistle too late and then still refused to throw a flag. If we're going to play like intent doesn't matter, as it didn't when Marcus Whitfield took off Geno Smith's helmet, then let's call it like it doesn't matter. A late hit to a defenseless player is a late hit to a defenseless player.
The little things. Look at what killed Maryland in this game. A missed tackle. A blown assignment. A missed field goal. A dropped pass. A fumble.
When coaches talk about the little things, those are literally exactly what they're talking about. They're things that good teams do, and they're things that young teams have to learn to do consistently. Some people call it "learning how to win." And that's what Maryland's in the middle of right now. It's frustrating to watch. But the fact that they were even in the position to beat themselves, instead of getting merely steamrolled as many expected them to, means that there's potential to be a good team here. If there's anything in this Edsall discipline lark, I'd hope this is where it'd manifest itself.
Stefon Diggs. All day every day. Get the feeling he's going to get quite a few of these.
Perry Hills. I won't go with the two best players every time in the Helmet Stickers, but they deserve it for this.
Demetrius Hartsfield. Seven solo tackles, two of which were for loss, one of those a sack. Arguably the best player on defense, even with the Austin coverage thing. (Because which linebacker actually sticks with Austin in man?)
Joe Vellano. This was very close to going to A.J. Francis, but the late roughing the passer call switched it to Vellano. Can't go wrong either way, really.
And yes, that was the most boring Helmet Stickers ever. But hey, Maryland's big guns showed up yesterday. Something to be said for that.