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Who'd ever have thought a month ago we'd be this happy for a football game?
What: Maryland's fanbase tries to rebound from a tough Thursday as the Terrapins kick off ACC play. Their opponent: the 3-2-but-struggling Wake Forest Demon Deacons.
Where and When: Byrd Stadium, College Park, Md.; 3:30 kickoff
Where to Watch: ESPNU, aka The Worst Network Ever, Like Even Worse Than The ACC not-a-real-Network, I Just Associate Some Bad Things With It And Don't Want To Talk About It, Okay?
Line: Maryland(!!!) -6(!!!)
Gameday Weather: 73, partly cloudy with a bit of wind and a 20% chance of rain
Save us, football. Stefon Diggs, in particular. You don't need any reminders as to why, but I'll give you one. People got carried away, started to label some very good basketball recruits as potential saviors, and got burned when they did what very good recruits almost always do.
The perfect antidote to that: a very good recruit who didn't do what very good recruits almost always do. He stayed home. He made a decision not based on where he'd get the most hype or be on TV the most or what would set him up for the best draft position. He made a decision that some would call foolish, objectively speaking; he made an emotional call for his family and his home. And we love him for it. And based on his performances so far, he's worth every bit of hype that's been lavished upon him, not least because he's lived up to his billing and kept a level head throughout it all.
I fear I'm going to jinx this, but I'll say it anyway: this has the potential to be The Stefon Diggs Game, the moment where an infatuation becomes a full-blown love affair. Maryland as a collective fanbase is depressed, somewhat disillusioned on recruiting and big-time sports. Diggs is just the type of personality, story, and football player to re-energize fans and get them believing again. Facing a somewhat leaky secondary, a big game is very possible. And it could come just when Maryland's fans need it most.
The same holds true for the rest of the team, too. Joe Vellano, and A.J. Francis, and Kenny Tate, and tough-as-nails Perry Hills, and everyone else. Maryland may be a basketball school, but the timing has never been better for a fanbase to fall in love with a likable, scrappy, and frankly underrated football team. This won't be a glamorous season, but it this is a chance to make it quite a fun one; here's hoping it's seized.
A key stretch begins. Piggybacking off that last thought: if Maryland's going to make a bowl (and if they do they'll become one of my most-loved football teams in recent memory, for the sheer emotional bond ), that journey starts now. Their next five games - Wake, @UVA, N.C. State, @BC, Georgia Tech - are all winnable; there's a chance they'll be favored in three of them. Get four of those, and they're bowl-eligible. Get three, and they'll likely go into Chapel Hill on the season finale with bowl eligibility on the line. Neither scenario is outside of the realm of imagination.
But for it to have any relevance, Maryland needs to get those three games they could be favored in. This is the first, and if they don't take care of business here, it'll be tough to make a run in the others.
Ch-ch-ch-changes. Welcome Mike Madaras and Andrew Zeller to your starting lineup, everyone, and A.J. Hendy back on the field as well. And with a bye week in the rear-view mirror, you might wonder what else Mike Locksley and Brian Stewart have up their playcalling sleeves. If there was ever a time to mix up the playbook a little bit, this was it. (I'll once again plug at least a little Devin Burns-Wes Brown-Stefon Diggs zone-read triple option.)
Injuries. Maryland has few of them; C.J. Brown, Andre Monroe, and Nick Ferrara - i.e., the three guys who are more or less out for the year - are the only ones slated to miss the game for the Terps. Joe Vellano is probable, technically speaking, but you and I both know he'll be on the field, because he's Joe Vellano. Wake Forest has things a little rougher: star receiver Michael Campanaro will miss with a broken hand, while receiver Matt James and tight end Neil Basford are both out for the year. The good news for the Deacs is that star nose tackle Nikita Whitlock continues to get healthier, but Blogger So Dear estimated him at still only 80% of full capacity.
In a Turtleshell
Maryland offense vs. Wake Forest defense. This is a classic "weakness vs. weakness" category. Maryland's struggled to get anything going offensively all year long; Wake Forest has one of the worst defenses in the country, checking in at 100th nationally in scoring D and 101st in total defense. They've acquitted themselves well enough against the pass - 54th nationally, though only 76th for yds/att - but have been abysmal against the run, checking in at 117th (106th per rush). That's partially due to the absence of Nikita Whitlock, the undersized but productive nose tackle comparable in many ways to Joe Vellano; he missed a few early season games before returning against Duke, and even though he's not completely healthy, should help shore things up.
And yes, the 52-point beatdown given to them by Florida State hurts matters. But then again, so does giving up 37 points to Army. The Black Knights, by the way, turned around the next week and put up 3 whole points on Stony Brook. Yup.
Which isn't to say there's no talent here, because there is. Whitlock is as good as it gets when it comes to ACC defensive linemen, and makes running it up the middle a serious chore; Justin Jackson, a junior linebacker, put up 23 tackles in the last two games and has three sacks on the year. And there's Merrill Noel, a redshirt sophomore who was one of the best cornerbacks in the conference as a freshman, honored as the eventual ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year and a consensus Freshman All-American. He'll be asked to check Stefon Diggs; that's a big ask for anyone, but it should be an interesting battle. In all, it's a pretty experienced unit that has some very good pieces.
But their performances so far are hardly intimidating as far as numbers go, and in fact there are some clear holes to be exploited. They got shredded on the ground by Army - though they use a triple option, so it's not perfectly transferable. And they got passed all over by Duke, despite Sean Renfree missing much of the game due to injury. They seemed especially troubled by bubble screens and intermediate routes, which should be music to Stefon Diggs' ears. Aside from Whitlock, I don't know if anything about this defense should really scare Maryland, even if they're probably the slightly better unit on balance.
Interestingly, though, Wake Forest uses a very similar scheme to West Virginia. Mike Locksley and Maryland call it a 50 front; in layman's terms, it's a 3-4 that sometimes shifts to a 4-3 or even a 5-2, in essence. I still think it's a silly scheme for any team without the size to play it, and Wake, just like West Virginia, doesn't really have the size. Based on how well the Terrapins did against West Virginia's 50, it's an absolute blessing. Perry Hills looked downright incisive against that scheme two weeks ago, and he's had basically three straight weeks of preparation to face this kind of front. He should know it forward and back by Saturday.
I wouldn't expect Maryland's scheme to change too much from what we've seen them do so far. Mostly keep Perry Hills on a leash, try to run the ball, get weapons the ball in space with bubble screens and the like. I wouldn't be shocked to see them give Hills a bit of leeway, though; he looked great against West Virginia, and this is arguably an inferior defense that runs almost the same scheme. They struggled when against Renfree, both on short passes and on the occasions when he pushed the ball down the field; I think you probably have to let Hills have at least a shot or two to Diggs in deep or deep intermediate routes.
Wake Forest offense vs. Maryland defense. If the previous section had something of "weakness vs. weakness" about it, this is the much-more-satisfying strength vs. ... still weakness. Wake Forest has had a decent offensive showing, but they've leaned heavily on Michael Campanaro, a junior receiver who had 36 catches through the first four games (an ACC-best 9 per). The three games Wake Forest has won have all been two-score games; Liberty and UNC were decided by three total points. Campanaro in those games accounted for about a third of their offense; it's not a stretch to say that without him, there's a solid chance they lose at least two, maybe all three.
Camp's not dissimilar to Tavon Austin; less athletic, sure, but he has that same canniness and ability to find a pocket of space in a secondary. Maryland doesn't have the cover guys to deal with that, and I'm confident that, had he played, he'd have wreaked havoc by playing smart and finding holes. It's the type of guy who's caused Maryland's defense fits over the years.
But Campanaro's injured, and that means Wake Forest is in a really tough position. Even with him, they were a downright middling offense: 87th in scoring O, 96th in total, 89th in rushing. Without him as an easy outlet, I'm not sure where they get their yards. The running backs, Deandre Martin and Josh Harris, have only just really started to find their strides. The Wake offensive line has four - yes, four - players seeing their first significant run in a starting lineup this year. The Deacs' OL has 39 starts between them; that's only one more than Maryland, and remember that the bye week that just passed gave WF an extra five. The odds that this group will be able to run against Maryland's front seven seem ... long, let's say.
So then look at Tanner Price, the quarterback, who just so happens to have the lowest QB rating in the ACC - a whopping 12 points lower than Perry Hills'. And then take away his primary weapon, the man responsible for nearly half of his passing yardage. Maryland's secondary might not be very good - in fact, they're quite easy for almost anyone to exploit - but they handled themselves well enough against West Virginia and seem to be settling down. If that's the case, it's tough to imagine them getting truly torched by one of the ACC's most inefficient quarterbacks and a group of weapons missing their most dangerous guy.
Like Maryland's done in every game so far, expect them to control the line of scrimmage. And like they did against West Virginia, they'll bring some pressure to try to confuse a young line and get pressure on Price. Without someone like Campanaro to exploit the inconsistency of the secondary, the margin for error is a little bit wider for an already very good defense playing an already poor offense. If this defense is anything like what they've shown this year, they should be able to control this game.
Players to Watch
Sherman Ragland III, WR, Wake Forest. Campanaro's replacement, the wonderfully-named Ragland will have a lot of weight on his shoulders. He has 9 career receptions. Well, if there was ever a time to break out, now is it.
Joey Ehrmann, LB, Wake Forest. Ehrmann's a Baltimore native and Wake's most experienced defensive player. He's a reliable and steady player, but many reliable and steady Marylanders who play the Terps at Byrd turn into unstoppable machines for at least a game. He's an anchor to an underrated linebacker corps.
Wes Brown, RB, Maryland. How many carries does he get? This is his type of game; a team that struggles to defend the run, that's undersized up front. Give 'im a shot, coach.
A.J. Francis, DE, Maryland. Against an inexperienced offensive line and without their most dangerous receiver to punish blitzes, expect to see Maryland in Wake Forest's backfield as much as possible. Francis, the Terps' leading sack man this far, could be in for a nice outing.
I'm hardly one to be gung-ho about this team, even though I love the roster, mostly because they're so young that making any sort of definitive statement has a very high embarrassment possibility. Young teams get better over time, but not always week-to-week. There are bumps in the road. At any time Maryland's young guys could turn in a bad day and the Terps could lose a game they shouldn't. For that reason alone, predicting a Maryland win can be risky business.
But screw it: so long as that doesn't happen, this is the type of game Maryland should win. Wake's defense might be a little better than Maryland's offense, but if this is the same offense that showed up against West Virginia, don't take that to the bank. And on the other side, Maryland's defense should dominate the game; Price has struggled, the line is young, Harris has been inconsistent, and now their biggest weapon is out. Maryland is probably the better team, and I mean that honestly.
That said, stuff can happen sometimes. Wake beat UNC, obviously. They're not a pushover, and I'm not expecting an easy victory. But Maryland does look like the better team on paper, and they have some major advantages off paper. They're at home, coming off a bye. They feel good about themselves. They're healthier. If they're going to make a statement, now's the time to do it.
I'm expecting at least one score from defense/special teams, and at least one Stefon Diggs big play on offense. I'm thinking something along the lines of a 20-13 win; either way, a lot of points is probably unlikely.