Maryland Terrapins-Temple Owls Preview: Terps Face Significant Test

Getting even.

What: The Maryland Terrapins try to build on last week's nervous victory with a visit to the Temple Owls for their first FBS opponent of the season, looking for revenge from last year's beating.

When and Where: Noon Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, Pa.

Where to Watch: ESPNU

Notes/Storylines:

  • Revenge. Last year, it was Temple who revealed to us that the emperor indeed had no clothes. Maryland fans were giddy after the win over Miami and still optimistic after West Virginia, but the beat-down Temple gave the Terps was the first real indication of just what a long season last year would be. Maryland will look to return that favor, with those who are still around from last season looking for payback.
  • Improvement. Perry Hills' first game in college football wasn't really one to remember. His three interceptions very nearly cost Maryland the game, and he seemed to struggle when put under pressure. But the bad might unfairly overshadow some of the very good plays Hills made, throwing a few bullets over the middle in intermediate routes and occasionally escaping the pocket to make something out of nothing. Mistakes were made, but it's clear what the staff saw in him in preseason. Freshmen tend to improve rapidly once they get game reps, and that's Maryland hope here. If he can cut down on the errors, there's no reason he can't be serviceable QB. Game-to-game progression, starting on Saturday, will be key to watch.
  • Learning opportunity. While I don't think many are optimistic after Maryland's one-point victory over William and Mary, a win's a win. Maryland's still 1-0, and anything is still possible. This, though, is their first serious test of the season - a road game against a BCS opponent who'll likely be bowl-bound - and I expect we'll start to draw expectations about the season based off this performance. We should know soon whether or not Maryland's for real this year.
  • Injury report: bad, but getting better. Kenny Tate, Nick Ferrara, Josh Cary, and Matt Robinson are all still out, which leaves Maryland without two defensive starters and still relying on Brad Craddock for their kicking duties. But Isaiah Ross and Keith Bowers return, which gives them newfound depth on the line. That's big, since Temple will look to pound the ground and control the ball. The Owls will likely be without presumptive starting running Montel Harris, the Boston College transfer who was last year's preseason ACC offensive player of the year.

In a Turtleshell

Maryland offense vs. Temple defense. The Owls are replacing quite a bit of their defense, with seven starters and their top five tacklers leaving from last season. Their front seven has some strong pieces - defensive tackle Levi Brown was preseasonfirst team All-Big East, and linebacker Ahkeem Smith looks a budding star - but they're largely trying to work in new pieces. Only three of the front seven have starting experience prior to this season, and they're clearly still trying to work out who fits where.

Villanova took advantage of that in Temple's opener, going no-huddle hurry-up with a running quarterback and gashing Temple for 212 yards on the ground, on an impressive 4.8 yards per carry. You can expect Maryland will be heartened by that display and will probably look to duplicate it. The only problem, of course, is that the Terrapins themselves had trouble running the ball against William and Mary, a smaller and even more inexperienced front than what Temple will have. It still strikes me as their best chance to win, but they'll need to get a better performance and more push from their offensive line, get Hills more involved - zone read options, please - and hope that the same Justus Pickett who played last week shows up again on Saturday.

The biggest thing for Maryland will be avoiding mistakes, which will be a tough task with so many freshmen playing against their first FCS opponent. Last week's offensive showing wasn't necessarily marred by outright ineptitude as it was by rookie mistakes: the silly interceptions, the Albert Reid fumble, the missed kick. It wasn't like there was an endless stream of three-and-outs; the Terrapins only punted three times. The third interception killed a promising drive; so did Reid's fumble, which occurred in the Tribe's half of the field. Take out those two miscues, throw in an extra three points, and the end result last week could've been much more comfortable.

Sadly, that isn't the way football works. But you get the point. There's potential for a productive offense here if they can simply execute and avoid self-inflicted turnovers. That's easier said than done - again, lots of true freshmen - but it's what I'll be looking for all the same.

The other big thing for Maryland needs to be getting Stefon Diggs the ball. His five touches last week just weren't enough; he needs to have the ball in his hands double-digits, every time out there. He's not a speedy-yet-undersized slot receiver type, after all; his hands are glue, he can outmuscle and outspeed almost anyone, and he's a good route runner. Give him a chance to go over the middle on occasion, since that seems to be when Hills is at his best. Let him get a few screens. He still represents Maryland's best shot at getting points, and they need to milk him for all he's worth.

Temple offense vs. Maryland defense. Not much has changed for the Owls since last year. Oh, personnel's come and gone: Bernard Pierce, Chester Stewart, and most of the offensive line is gone; Montel Harris, Kenny Harper, and Chris Coyer are in.

But the philosophy is the same. Temple will run a defense in the ground, and throwing the ball remains secondary at best. They went to the ground 47 times against Villanova, getting an extraordinary 6.4 yards per carry for upwards of 300 yards rushing. This is still a spread mixed with a power running game, which sounds strange but evidently works great in reality; Coyer, Temple's new mobile QB, will run plenty of option, and he's dangerous enough to make something happen with his legs, with the running backs - Brown, Harper, and Harris - can count on their touches coming both from the option and in more traditional hand-offs. Each of Temple's four primary ballcarriers seems hugely dangerous; Harris was one of the best ACC running backs at BC, and the other three all scored in the opener.

The key, though, is still the offensive line. It lacks last season's experience, but Steve Addazio is an offensive line guy and he's trying to work some magic with this younger group. They're big and effectively controlled the point of attack against Villanova, and will look to do the same against Maryland's front. But that might be good news for Brian Stewart and the Terrapins; if there's any strength Maryland has, it's their front seven. Joe Vellano is well-known, but A.J. Francis is a senior now and Bowers and Ross have been through the fires, too. Throw in a rock-solid linebacker corps, especially on the weak side, and Maryland will certainly favor their chances at stopping Temple's ground attack.

The end result will be something of a strength vs. strength chess match, because neither side should trust the other side of their game. Temple's Coyer attempted only a handful of passes last season, and went just 5-11 for 61 yards against Villanova. Addazio claimed time and time again he'll look to pass the ball more, but his hesitancy to do so last week points to some unease with giving Coyer the green light. And Maryland's secondary, which is still incredibly young, had their rock turn into their weak link when Dexter McDougle forgot how to play football last week. Will Addazio let Coyer take to the air against a weak secondary? And if so, can McDougle recover from last week's outing to take advantage of an inexperienced passer?

So you have Brian Stewart's experienced front seven trying to neutralize Addazio's curated offensive line, with the two passing games lagging far behind. It should be an hard-fought, if at times slightly boring, contest.

Players to Watch

Matt Brown, RB, Temple. Bernard Pierce got the credit (and touchdowns) last year, but Brown did plenty of damage on his own, averaging 6.3 yards per carry in last year's contest and taking a kickoff 78 yards. He proved against Villanova that he can be a feature back, too, with a 7.6 ypc average on 19 carries, including a 56-yard touchdown. He's dangerous.

Nate Smith, LB, Temple. Because Owlsblog told us so. A redshirt freshman middle linebacker, Smith led Temple in tackles against 'Nova and helped control a shaky front seven. Maryland will be looking to expose the youngster with their ground game; whether or not he'll cooperate is another matter.

Justus Pickett, RB, Maryland. With Randy Edsall saying to the media that he prefers a single feature back to a committee, Pickett clearly has a shot at taking the starting spot for good. He'll get plenty of touches against the Owls, too, with Maryland almost certainly looking to control the ground. They need a big performance from the sophomore to have any chance.

Demetrius Hartsfield, LB, Maryland. The Terrapins' tackle machine last season and for the opener, Hartsfield will have his hands full against Temple's ground game. Maryland's 3-4 is built in part to handle this type of offense, with Cole Farrand dashing forward to absorb blockers and Darius Kilgo taking up as much space as possible. The end result, Maryland hopes, is Hartsfield one-on-one with the ballcarrier, and they need him to win those battles.

Prediction

I certainly don't think Temple deserves to be 10-point favorites in this one, and I actually think Temple's quite a good matchup for the Terrapins. They're a good team, but their strength - running the ball - happens to coincide with Maryland's strength - stopping the run - while the Owls' front seven probably isn't seasoned enough to really worry Maryland's ground game. If MD is going to pull off a non-conference win, this might be the one.

It'd be easier to pick Maryland if they were at home, though. The Linc is hardly a tough place to play for opponents, but with Perry Hills, Stefon Diggs, and all the other freshmen experiencing a college road game for their first time, you never have any idea how they'll react. That will probably result in an extra mistake or two, and that mistake or two will probably cost Maryland the game. 21-13 Owls.

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