Once again, Stefon Diggs. Every week, he does something incredible and unexpected. Yesterday, it was taking a kickoff 103 yards to the house for a decisive touchdown. I was nervous when he was bringing it out, because it was several yards deep and he took it quite slowly; his blockers, too, were telling him to stay in. Diggs' mental response? "No, we're going to take this one out." And, as proven, you can't doubt him when decides to do so. At first glance, it doesn't look like a particularly exciting play - he's more or less untouched, and he never does one of those jaw-dropping moves in the open field that's so entertaining. But what was so impressive was the change of speed he showcases, going from a slight jog to a full-on sprint in the blink of an eye, slightly changing direction without ever losing that pace, bursting through lanes and outrunning angles. He doesn't have the straight-line speed of someone like Sammy Watkins, but he's reminded everyone that he's no slowpoke neither. And from a standing start, he might be the most explosive player in the country.
And then later in the half he busts out an even better play, taking a five-yard curl in the slot, turning away from the linebacker covering him - a mismatch of the highest order, really - before running into a cul-de-sac, surrounded by seven Virginia players who completely encircled him. Diggs is one of the few players in the world who could escape such a situation, and just as you'd expect, he did: he pulled away from the trailing linebacker, avoided a second tackle, and then spun back across the field, allowing another trailing defender to overpursue and leaving the others, who had stopped in an effort to contain him, flat-footed and sputtering. He erased an angle and made it to the sideline, where a convoy had assembled. If that convoy had actually blocked for him, it'd have been touchdown #2 for Mr. Diggs, and it would've come from basically nothing.
That's what Diggs can do: take nothing plays and turn them into touchdowns, or at the very least big gains. It's why Maryland will win games this year, and it's why Maryland's offense doesn't have to take big risks to get big plays. Just get him touches, Mike Locksley, and he'll reward you.
Marcus Leak. Did you know that Leak actually led Maryland in receptions on Saturday? I bet you didn't. Well, he did. And he hauled in the second-biggest reception of the day, a beaut of a 36-yarder that fell in right over his shoulder. He also returned punts instead of Stefon Diggs, who apparently had a slight tweak in his back. I'm not sure how much it was that compared to just pure common sense: for all of Diggs' great qualities, no one would ever claim he's a great decision-maker when it comes to returns. He lets balls bounce that he should pick up, doesn't call for fair catches, keeps his eyes downfield ... it's a whole host of negative qualities in a punt returner, and it's cost Maryland more than once this season. It makes more sense to utilize him in the kickoff game, where those factors aren't present, and on offense. Leak provided a steady, stable punt returner who could pick up a few yards when the opportunity's presented, but for the most part just gets the ball into Maryland's hands with as little fanfare as possible. That - not doing something silly when the other team is trying to hand you the ball - fits Maryland's M.O this year. I wouldn't be opposed to seeing him there in the future.
Anthony Nixon. Had a big interception to start with, then made several tackles in the run game that prevented big runs from becoming huge runs. He actually led Maryland in tackles, with nine. He got shook once early in the game, but recovered well and looked strong throughout. Matt Robinson has some competition.
Darin Drakeford. He's a man, a straight-up playmaker, and is playing himself into an NFL Draft spot right now. He's a terror pursuing from the weak side, but showed he could maintain the edge when the play comes toward him, too. Final stat line; 7 tackles, 3 TFL, two sacks, and a forced fumble. He also had several pressures that led to incompletions, though those don't show up in the stat book. There was only one play where Maryland really couldn't get pressure on Sims, and he made them pay; Drakeford, of course, wasn't rushing.
He still doesn't strike me as super-athletic, but he has a great mixture of explosiveness and size for the WILL spot in this scheme and is playing with an awesome fierceness right now. (His celebration after his final sack was fantastic.) He's a big part of the attitude and swagger that Maryland's defense is crafting.
Joe Vellano. Nine tackles, three for loss, two sacks. Typical Joe Vellano game.
Andre Powell. The stuff with the running backs? Meh. But Maryland's special teams were awful last year and now they're great, with Diggs housing a touchdown and coverage on punts really, really good. (Sean Davis, in particular, stood out.) Powell's the luckiest special teams coordinator in the world, working first with C.J. Spiller and now Diggs, but still, he's doing something right.
Randy Edsall. If people are going to ding him (rightfully) when the team looks flat and sloppy, it only makes sense that he gets credit when they start with fire, finish with grit, and don't make mistakes in the meantime. Only one turnover, which is impressive for this team. Only a single delay of game penalty. Relatively good clock management. All while Juan knows what was going on with the Virginia sideline. One of the biggest reasons Maryland won this game: they were the better-coached team.
Maryland's fans. I'm pretty sure the mic was right next to the Maryland section. Still, audible "Let's go Maryland" chants in Charlottesville? Always awesome.
Perry Hills. On the whole, I don't think Hills did anything at all on Saturday to redefine himself or his expectations. He was Perry Hills, for better or for worse.
That means he overthrew some screens, sailed some throws, got bailed out on a few deep balls. It means he threw a beauty of a ball on a deep fade, seemingly out of nowhere. It means just snaps later he missed a pretty easy touchdown throw to Matt Furstenburg by throwing it high and behind him. It means he lowered his shoulder and rumbled into a few unsuspecting defenders. It means he still utterly failed at the zone read. And it means that when the game really mattered in the fourth quarter, he commanded the huddle and came up big.
Hills is who we thought he was: a gritty, tough-as-nails wrestler (drink!) who makes some throws but lacks experience and is erratic. I think the only thing we actually learned was that he hasn't really improved from last week, which is a little disconcerting but hardly headline material until it becomes a serious trend. Whether you're dismayed or encouraged by what he showed on Saturday depends entirely on what you thought of him coming in, because he didn't do much to move the needle one way or the other.
For me, that means I still like him as a long-term prospect a heck of a lot, but have concerns right now. The thing that really matters this season is getting to six wins, aesthetics and experience-adding be damned. At times, you wonder how much Hills can do to get them there. Against Virginia, who liked to shoot themselves in the foot, you can get away with two quarters of minimal offensive activity. Against N.C. State, or UNC, or Georgia Tech? I'm not so sure.
But that's Maryland's bed, and they've no choice but to lie in it. There are some slight alterations to the scheme that have to be made, but the problems - inexperience and incapacity at quarterback, ineptitude in the running game - are pretty much structural at this point. I'm getting a little deep in here, though; it's a conversation for another day. Point is, Hills has good and he has bad. I expect we'll see both sides every game from here on out.
The Devin Burns Package. Randy Edsall had talked about giving it a look, and he did just that, giving Burns a few snaps late in the first quarter. There's no better time than up 17 to give an alternate look a shot, though it arguably could've been given one or two more. They went option both times, as you'd expect, and the end result was minimal: he picked up three on the first, lost two on the second. (It don't sound like much, but hey, a 0.5 ypc average was a solid .6 better than the rest of the running game.) That was it for Burns, because a throwing down resulted and two drives later Virginia finally put up some points, which seemed to scare Locksley and Edsall enough to keep them away from trying it more.
I doubt we've seen the end of this package, though. Maryland can't run the ball straight-up, and they most certainly can't do it with Hills in on a zone-read. They've got to find a ground game and they've got to get Diggs touches; theoretically, at least, this is still a good way to kill two birds with one stone. Unfortunately their hand has been somewhat tipped to N.C. State, but it wasn't an unmitigated disaster, so calls in the future are still possible.
Matt Furstenburg. Tough to blame him too much for that "dropped" touchdown, but still ... what an opportunity. It would've been a great play had he pulled it in, but far from an impossible one. He made up for later in the game with a 22-yard reception that set up Maryland's final score.
Dexter McDougle. Hugely productive, with six solo tackles and a PBU that prevented a touchdown. Was kinda-sorta beaten on the final TD, though; he was a bit behind the receiver, mistimed his jump, and missed the ball. Still not an elite cover man, but I like him a bunch within fifteen yards of the line of scrimmage.
Brad Craddock. Make two miss one. It's Brad Craddock.
The running game. Final line: 29 carries, -2 yards. Take out sacks, and it's still only 10 yards on 27 carries. Maryland got 0.37 yards per carry. Ack. And against a defense allowing nearly 5 ypc on the season. That absolutely kills the offense, because it forces Hills into third-and-long situations with regularity, which allows the defense to tee off on him. You've got to run the ball with a young QB, so says conventional wisdom, but at this point it's seemingly doing more harm than good. Shockingly, the better plan might even be to lean on Hills, with short, easy underneath throws to get him into a rhythm, then going to the ground only when the defense is playing off somewhat. Unless they can miraculously discover a ground game, I'm not sure what else they can do.
And the running performance was bad enough that we need to break it down into a few categories:
The offensive line. Very, very rarely did you see a hole for anyone to run through. They gave Perry Hills time for the most part, which was good to see, but couldn't control the line of scrimmage in the ground game. Perhaps the best example of this was when Maryland was backed up on their own 2-y/l in the first quarter. They go jumbo, with two tight ends and a fullback, against a relatively base four-down-lineman look for Virginia. They hand it off to Albert Reid, and ... this is what he sees. He's a solid five yards behind the line of scrimmage, and already two Cavaliers have filled the hole, with nowhere else for him to go. Maryland's line can get absolutely no push against an average front seven, and UVA exploited and exposed that all day long. On probably about half the carries, Maryland's running back had to deal with someone in the backfield. And none of them are good enough to consistently get out of that much trouble.
Justus Pickett. He's not an everydown back, as should be clear to everyone by now. He's really good in passing situations, because when he gets squared up in space he can almost always make one man miss, just like he did on the touchdown. But he doesn't have the vision, decisiveness, or elusiveness to run behind Maryland's line. I don't think Wes Brown would've done that much better, but I'm fairly confident he would've done better. It's tough to do worse than a -0.5 yard per carry average, after all.
The zone-read option. I've joked before that I'm not sure the zone-read is really a zone-read for Maryland, and that Hills is basically just a decoy, because he never keeps it. I don't believe that, especially because it sure looks like Hills is reading the defense, but man, you certainly don't know it by what he does. He never keeps it, even when the read is on, and as a result the ZR is basically just giving up a down. Even when he does make the right read - meaning, hand it off when he's supposed to hand it off, because he never keeps it - Maryland's line rarely gets enough push to allow the back to capitalize on it. The zone-read makes a lot of sense with Burns or C.J. Brown or Ricardo Young or Shane Cockerille, especially with this offensive line. With Hills? Not really, because he can't run it. He has the legs to do so, I'm sure of that; it's just mental right now. Until that gets fixed, it's just a really, really slow-developing run play.
On to other disappointments:
Mike Locksley. The personnel's not there, sure, but neither is the playcalling nor the execution. Maryland's O mustered only a totally-mediocre 235 yards; they had exactly two sustained drives, both resulting in field goal attempts. At least some of that blame falls on Locksley, who continues to be relatively uninspiring as a playcaller. That's okay; uninspiring I can work with, once the talent catches up. But man, why he keeps going to that zone-read, I'll never know.
Oh, and more underneath and intermediate routes, please.
Maryland's run defense. For the first time this year, Maryland's run D looked something other than dominant. Actually, they looked downright bad at times, with Virginia's heretofore pedestrian ground game managing 168 yards on the ground on 4.0 per carry. Now before you go and start setting fire to stuff, know that those aren't actually bad totals - they're simply human ones. If they had been averaging that on the year, they'd be 6th in the ACC in total rushing D and 5th in rushing average, so in fact they'd still actually be pretty solid. Virginia badly wanted to run the ball because they didn't trust Phillip Sims, and they found a soft spot taking stretch runs off tackle. Maryland's front three struggled to force double-teams, leaving their linebackers out to dry when UVA's 300+ offensive line was able to seal them off at the second level.
I would advise against fretting, at least for right now. Obviously this was not a good thing, but it's not a particularly scary one, either. Offenses watch film, find holes, exploit them. And even as UVA exploited Maryland's, they only managed to make the Terrapins look average - not bad, just average. Brian Stewart now knows about a weakness, and knows that everyone else knows about it, too. It's his turn to respond, tweaking the scheme to counteract that and using the week to work on execution. Everything I've seen of him so far indicates that he'll probably do just that.
Maryland's health. Yikes. Already without Wes Brown, Justus Pickett appeared to faint (or at least collapse) late in the game. By my count, Sal Conaboy, Bennett Fulper, Darin Drakeford, Kenneth Tate, and Joe Vellano all pulled up lame at some point, too. Here's hoping everyone's healthy by next Saturday, because Maryland will need 'em.
Marcus Leak. Diggs was the best player, but Leak's proven to be a reliable, steady target after those drops at West Virginia. Never underestimate how important a reliable possession go-to guy can be for a young QB.
Kenneth Tate. Could've gone to almost anyone, but he had a killer pass rush to force an incompletion on a third-and-short in the fourth quarter, plus caused the interception by tipping the pass.
A.J. Francis. Big guy's great at blocking field goals. That was huge for momentum.
Darin Drakeford. For the sack dance alone. Maryland needs more awesome sack dances.