Where and When: FedEx Field, Landover, Md.; 7:30 on Saturday
Where to Watch: NBC national broadcast; streams will be posted in the GameThread comments
Gameday Weather: 56 and clear at kickoff
Spread: Notre Dame -20.5
Super Bowl. Look, let's be honest: this may not be a "lost season" in some regards (rebuild?), but in the most immediately important regard - making the post-season - it certainly is. But this game has a dozen factors making it actually important: it's Notre Dame, it's on national TV, and the Pride unis are coming out, which makes it pretty obvious that the program is taking this pretty darn serious. For Maryland, this is the biggest game left, and potentially the only one that really matters.
And it really does matter. Randy Edsall needs to be able to point to a win. He needs to be able to show fans that there is some good on the horizon. He needs to be able to show recruits a bright spot, proof that this is a rebuild instead of a tear-down. Notre Dame, even in an average year, is most certainly that sort of win.
To that point: I used the example of Mike Gundy a few weeks ago as an optimistic Edsall parallel: he walked into a great situation, kicked 11 players off the team, and ended up 4-8. Now, he (and Ok. State) are on top of the world. So there's hope, right? Well, even Gundy showed some flashes early on, when his team beat then-#13th-ranked Texas Tech. Edsall needs that type of victory in the worst way. Saturday would be a fantastic time to grab it.
Welcome to the show, boys. A.J. Hendy and Trenton Hughes, how are you? Are you ready to make your first start of the season at safety and cornerback, respectively? Good. Oh, by the way, it's against Michael Floyd, T.J. Jones, and Tyler Eifert, among others. Have fun. (Yes, I'm very scared by what Notre Dame's ultra-talented receivers can do against Maryland's shaky-at-best secondary.)
Injuries and suspensions. As of the time of me writing this (which is before it's posted) Maryland hasn't announced its injuries yet, so this is incomplete. But Justin Gilbert is back in the fold on the offensive line, and I've gotten no new news on the injury front, so I'm assuming everything there is holding steady otherwise: Matt Robinson, Justin Anderson, and Isaiah Ross are still out, with recent returnees like Andre Monroe, Demetrius Hartsfield, and Darin Drakeford still in. David Mackall is, of course, still suspended.
On the other side of the ball, the Irish are dealing with two recent injuries in the form of second-leading receiver Theo Riddick and starting center Braxston Cave. They'll be replaced by the diminutive Robby Toma at wideout and Mike Golic, Jr. at center - and yes, he's the son of the other Mike Golic.
Both home and away. A quick esoteric scheduling note here. The game is being played at FedEx Field, the giant soulless monstrosity located in nearby Landover. That's a quick 15-minute drive from College Park, less than five miles as the crow flies. So, as you might expect, the team is treating it like a home game and is going through its home-game practice schedule. For scheduling purposes, though, this classifies as a road game. Of course, that leaves open Notre Dame a chance to make a "return" game to College Park. Just in case you were interested in the quirks of the situation.
Shield your eyes. I can't wait (sarcasm) to see the Twitter reaction when Maryland comes out in the Pride uniforms and Notre Dame comes out in the giant shamrock (with green facemasks). That'll be fun. Hey, maybe SportsCenter will talk about it for three hours like they did last time.
In a Turtleshell
Notre Dame offense vs. Maryland defense. The Fighting Irish are, frankly, pretty loaded throughout the offense, particularly at the skill positions. Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray are both former top-100 players and have been fantastic all year - Wood, the primary back, is averaging more than 5.6 yards per carry, and Gray has 9 touchdowns in only 82 attempts. Then you transition to wide receiver, where the Irish have arguably the best wide receiver in the country in Michael Floyd. Even the absence of Riddick won't hurt them too much there; Toma has been productive throughout his career, T.J. Jones is a former four-star, and Tyler Eifert is one of the more productive tight ends in the country. To make matters worse, the offensive line is one of the best in the nation, having allowed only five sacks all season.
Quarterback Tommy Rees isn't quite as imposing, and in fact he can probably best be described as "effective" over "spectacular." But past that, this is one talent-laden offense with skill throughout, and the numbers reflect that: they're 39th in scoring offense, 44th in rushing offense (12th in ypc, for what that's worth), 38th in passing offense (though 68th in ypa), and 37th in total offense (19th in yards/play).
Compare that to Maryland, which is in the triple-digits in just about every category that matters. So ... yeah. This'll be fun, right?
As for what you should expect out of Notre Dame's offense, besides success: probably a focus on pounding the rock on the ground and trying to limit the amount they take to the air. They've found success recently with the ground game: 35 rushes to 25 passes in the 56-14 win over Navy two weeks ago, and then 38 rushes to 24 passes in the 24-17 victory over Wake Forest last Saturday. They've ignored it some more than they wanted to in the past - only 14 carries against USC, for example - but most of their success seems to come on the heels of a strong, effective running game.
That should test Maryland's defense, which has struggled consistently against the run all season, and sometimes mightily so. And, as mentioned above, it's not like the passing game is neutered - in fact, it's mighty dangerous, too. Maryland's defense has its hands full for this one.
Not to go all Geico Gecko on you, but there is good news: their 22 turnovers is among the worst marks in the country, better than only 8 teams nationally. Maryland's defense, of course, has forced 23 turnovers of their own, the 10th-best mark in the country. If you're Maryland, getting and capitalizing on turnovers is absolutely critical for them to have any shot at this. (Dexter McDougle, who's become the defense's resident playmaker along with Darin Drakeford, has to be big here.)
And they're not really a big play offense: they've had only 4 plays of more than 40 yards. So there's that. Hey, I'll take what I can get.
Maryland offense vs. Notre Dame defense. I think we're at a point where you have to expect for both Danny O'Brien and C.J. Brown to get playing time on Saturday. O'Brien will likely start, as he did last week, and Brown will likely come in as a chance-of-pace-y, zone read QB. I'm not certain of much when it comes to Maryland right now, but I feel that's a pretty good bet
As for ND's defense, it's probably not quite as loaded as the offense, but it might possess the Irish's best overall player in middle linebacker Manti Te'o, a tackling machine who plays a huge role in that defense. There's also some extremely talented and very young pass-rushing talent coming off the edge in the form of true freshmen Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt, and Ishaq Williams, who are all former top-50 recruits. The secondary is perhaps the opposite, lacking a really big-time athlete but featuring plenty of experience: three of the four starters are seniors, and the fourth is a junior. The leader there is senior safety Harrison Smith, the only Irish player to ever have more than 200 tackles, 15 TFL, and 15 pass break-ups. (Sort of a do-everything type, I suppose).
Statistically, it's a solid bunch, though perhaps not suffocating, at 40th nationally in total defense and 27th in scoring defense. The only teams to top 300 yards on this defense have been Michigan, Michigan State, Air Force, and USC, which is an imposing group. Three of those teams are currently ranked, and the third (Air Force) has one of the top 20 offenses in the country, so it's not totally expected for Maryland's offense to go off for one of their random 400+ yard days they have every once in awhile. (*cough*Clemson*cough*)
(Although I should mention that Michigan State, at #82 in total offense nationally, ain't exactly a powerhouse.)
With any luck, and regardless of who plays at QB, Gary Crowton will realize that Maryland's success, when it has it, usually comes on the ground, as opposed to throwing the ball to receivers who, on the whole, have pretty questionable hands. It makes especial sense here. First of all, ND's rushing defense is performing much worse than the passing D - 51st vs. 28th in yards/attempt - although that is skewed a bit by the fact that the Irish have already faced both Air Force and Navy (both triple-option looks).
There's also, though, what the guys at One Foot Down pointed out to us yesterday: that Notre Dame is more of a pass-rushing team featuring a lot of inexperience up front. Taking advantage of that, perhaps through liberal use of Brown in the zone-read, might be worth exploring for Maryland.
Of course, it seems easy to write off much of the Terrapins' offense here, and it probably is. They've looked overmatched ever since the Clemson game, after all. I do think, for what it's worth, that if the receivers suddenly figured out how to catch that this game could turn quickly - not because Notre Dame is susceptible to the passing game, but simply because if Maryland's receivers had caught the ball consistently all season the offensive numbers would be such that we wouldn't be talking about this being a foregone conclusion. Of course, we haven't seen that all season and have no reason to expect it, but ... I mean, you've got to dream, right?
Keys in Cliches
Establish a ground game. Perhaps if only to keep the defense - which has been on the field the third-most of any defense in the country - off the field against a high-powered offense.
How's the emotion now that post-season is out? This is the first game the Terrapins have played since being eliminated from bowl contention. They might show up because it's Notre Dame ... or they might not care. A flat performance is asking to be beaten up.
Force turnovers (and capitalize on them). Again: if Maryland has any shot at this one at all, they'll win the turnover battle and then score on said turnovers. Statistically, you have to think the Irish will give the ball at least twice if not more, and that's a pretty big deal.
Players to Watch
Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame. Duh. Let's face it: Maryland's secondary isn't too good this year. Michael Floyd is really good. This has some scary potential.
Aaron Lynch, DE, Notre Dame. Lynch is leading the Irish in sacks. He's also a pass-rushing-oriented true freshman, which means he should be one of the prime candidates Maryland looks to exploit in the running game by trying to get him to overcommit on ball-fakes and zone-reads.
C.J. Brown, QB, Maryland. He's still Maryland's best big-play threat, and I have a feeling he'll get a fair amount of use on Saturday. I don't think he'll start, but a well-timed rotation could have a big impact.
Joe Vellano, DT, Maryland. Let's see, Vellano is Vellano, and Notre Dame is starting their backup at center. Sounds good to me. If Vellano can get interior pressure to bust up plays against a traditionally very stout offensive line, the defense's job just got a bit easier.
There's still a little part of me who thinks Maryland can win this game. It wouldn't even be that hard. A few well-timed turnovers, some improved tackling, an adequate performance from the wide receivers, and hey, we might have a game. Throw in a hyped-up attitude (a real toss-up, IMO) and, yeah, Maryland has a shot.
Actually, now that I say it out loud, that does seem a little difficult, especially when you look at the talent on the other side of the ball.
Ah, whatever. This week is like just about every other week has been this season: Maryland is capable of a victory, and they don't even necessarily need a healthy dose of luck to get it. There's also almost no chance they actually get that victory. For all the spurts of potential we've seen, there's been coaching gaffes, poor execution, and flat starts tenfold in response. I want to believe - they just haven't given me any reason to right now.
In the end, I do think Maryland starts out focused and energetic, and gets and early turnover that has everyone excited and thinking they might just pull this off. And from there, it's a train wreck. I don't think ND will blow Maryland out, mostly due to their turnover problem, but I don't think Maryland will pose any threat after halftime. Irish 38, Maryland 23.