Where and When: BB&T Field at Groves Stadium, Winston-Salem, N.C.; 3:00 on Saturday
Where to Watch: Comcast Sports Net for the locals; non-locals, check your regional sports networks (e.g., Fox Sports South); also on ESPN3.com, though that's subject to blackout.
Gameday Weather: 56 and sunny at kickoff
Spread: Wake Forest -10.5
- Bowl eligibility on the line for at least one of the teams. I think you can guess which one. Yes, Wake Forest currently stands at 5-5 and needs to win one of their final two to clinch a post-season berth (the last one is against James Franklin and Vanderbilt, of course). So they, at least, have something to play for.
- Past that, this is for just about none of the marbles. Maryland, of course, is in the midst of a lost season, and unlike last week's game against Notre Dame this one doesn't have much importance for the Terps: "Hey, we beat a .500 Wake Forest!" isn't really going to revolutionize how fans feel about the program right now. And the Deacs were just dealt a massive blow last week, losing a 14-point lead at Clemson and their chance at the ACC Championship game in the process. Emotion might be a bit tough to come by.
- Slumps. As I'm sure you know, Maryland's lost 6 straight. Wake Forest has dropped their last three, and four of their last five. So they're actually teams headed in the same direction this week: down.
- Can Maryland finally stop the running game? The Terps haven't held a team under 200 yards rushing since the Towson game back on October 1. Wake Forest is one of the worst rushing teams in the country, despite possessing standout running back Josh Adams. Can Todd Bradford break the streak? Does anyone care anymore?
- Injuries. Maryland has just about all of their injured players back, save the long-term guys like Justin Anderson, Kenny Tate, and Matt Robinson. The only new ones are Danny O'Brien, of course, and Alex Twine, who has an "undisclosed injury." I guess it had to happen: one of Maryland's few bright spots on the year goes missing with an Edsallian mystery affliction. Fun. Anyway, on the other side the big news is that Josh Harris, star running back, is still questionable for Wake. It may not matter with Maryland's run defense, but take it for what it's worth.
In a Turtleshell
Wake Forest offense vs. Maryland defense. The Deacs struggled last year, when their offense heavily relied upon freshmen at basically every position of importance, outside of perhaps wide receiver. Last year's freshmen took their lumps, though, and are this year's sophomores, playing much more effectively and impressively. (That, by the way, is one of those cautionary tales that hawkish Maryland fans would do well to remember.) In 2010, the Deacons were 11th in the ACC in scoring offense; in 2011, that number's up to a much more respectable 6th.
Leading the charge is quarterback Tanner Price, who had the unfortunate designation of having to replace Wake legend Riley Skinner. Price has performed surprisingly well after struggling last year, checking in at 4th in the ACC in yards per game and 43rd nationally in QB rating. He's not often sensational, but he rarely makes mistakes - only Jacory Harris has thrown fewer interceptions in the ACC among starters (never thought you'd hear that, huh?) - and that makes the positive plays all the more impactful.
It doesn't hurt, either, that he has Chris Givens at wide receiver. Givens was Wake's leading receiver last year as a sophomore, and has only improved since then. He's the second-leading receiver in the ACC in yards/game, behind only Sammy Watkins, and is third in receptions. He's a complete package of sorts, with the ability to make things happen after the catch or go up and win a jump ball. Dexter McDougle will have his hands full. Across the field is Michael Campanaro, an elusive little guy from Clarksville (Maryland had offered him). Campanaro's exploded a bit in his sophomore year, averaging about 60 ypg.
They are, though, without a doubt a passing team. On the ground, things aren't nearly as effective. Some of that, admittedly, has to do with the the status of Harris, who has been in and out all year with a variety of injuries. Still, in the past five weeks, they've only had one player top 100 yards rushing in a single game: Brandon Pendergrass, when he went for 120 last week against Clemson. They're 105th nationally in rushing offense (10th in the ACC), and it's certainly more of a liability than it is a strength.
Thing is, Maryland's defense usually figures out a way to fix other teams' running games. (Sort of like the hardwood Terps and outside shooting, I guess.) As mentioned before, they've given up 200 yards rushing six straight weeks, and not always to stellar rushing teams: FSU was one of the worst ground teams in the country. This'll be Maryland's best chance to break this streak, so it'll be interesting to see which unit is a little better.
In case you were wondering, Wake's OL returned four starters from last year, but their performance hasn't really reflected that. There have been the obvious struggles in the rushing game, for one, and they've also struggled to protect Price: they've allowed 25 sacks, a full 10 more than Maryland and 10th in the ACC. Maryland isn't the same defense it was earlier in the year (RIP, David Mackall's Terp career) but Joe Vellano and Andre Monroe have shown an ability to create pressure out of nothing, and Todd Bradford looks to be getting a bit more aggressive.
It'll be interesting to see if he tries to exploit that, because the one thing Maryland's defense has really succeeded with - forcing turnovers - isn't likely to work against one of the most careful offenses in the country. Wake leads in the ACC in taking care of the ball. If Maryland can't take the ball away from Wake at least once or twice, I'm not sure they really have a shot here.
Maryland offense vs. Wake Forest defense. For the first time in weeks, this section has much more to do with the Terps than their opponent. Because, for the first time in weeks, we actually know what to expect out of Maryland - and, perhaps more importantly, we know who'll start at quarterback. Heck, we even know who'll play the whole game.
It's something I think many of us have been wishing for, in terms of the consistency at quarterback, even if that consistency is a sensible rotation. (It was often anything but.) Of course, it's sad that it happened in the way it did, with O'Brien breaking his arm. With some melancholy irony, it seems like they had finally decided to go with that consistency last week, with Randy Edsall seemingly casting his lot with Danny, sticking with him despite a poor all-around showing from Maryland's offense. Shame.
Anyway, it's C.J. Brown's team now, and you know what that means: pure, unfiltered Gary Crowton. Given that the conditions are good and the opposition isn't extraordinarily imposing, I'm guessing we'll see the same thing we saw against Clemson: a lot of zone-read, a lot of Matt Furstenburg screens, and some hurry-up, too. Brown presents a big enough danger on the ground that they should focus heavily on the zone-read and make Wake stop it before trying to look elsewhere. Get positive yardage on every play and keep 3rd (and 4th) down manageable.
And, interestingly enough, we'll see some D.J. Adams, too. (With any luck, at least.) After weeks of being incognito/held hostage/*insert phrase here*, Adams came back in a big way last week against Notre Dame, leading Maryland in rushing. He also seemed to be C.J. Brown's personal back; Adams was in on most of Brown's drives, and they showcased a fair amount of chemistry. In fact, Adams was the primary back on three drives last Saturday; Maryland got seven points on all three.
On the other side, Wake Forest's defense is firmly average. They're 69th in the country in scoring D and 64th in total, though with a fair amount of fluctuation week-to-week. For example: over the past two weeks, they held Notre Dame to 24 points and 341 yards of total offense, and then kept Clemson to 31 points in Death Valley. Maryland, I'm sure, would've killed for either of those figures. What they wouldn't have killed for, however, is what happened before that, when Wake gave up 49 points and 562 total yards (338 passing and 224 rushing for an all-around awful performance) to North Carolina.
So it's a bit of a hit-or-miss unit. They're probably better against the run than they are against the pass, but before you freak out and go all "Man, why do we have to play C.J. Brown?" remember that the zone-read is a bit like the triple-option: it's a different sort of running game, and the keys to stopping it aren't the same keys to stopping the traditional running game.
For the peripheral stuff, Wake isn't really a suffocating bunch: they're not ones to get after the quarterback much, nor will they consistently force turnovers. They're 11th in the ACC in sacks (113th nationally), so there shouldn't be much too much problem for Maryland in protecting Brown in the rare occasion where he drops back. And they're 8th in the ACC in forced turnovers with 16; strangely, though, six of those have come from senior DB Josh Bush. Bush has six picks, which is easily the best in the ACC and one of the best marks in the country. Brown will have to be careful to make sure Bush won't be too much of a ballhawk.
For the record, there's an interesting wrinkle added to these final two games: C.J. Brown, with a particularly strong or weak performance, may win or lose the starting job for next year, or at least put himself in an advantageous or disadvantageous position for spring ball.
Keys in Cliches
Pressure Price. Wake Forest's offensive line gives up a lot of sacks, and getting into Price's face might be the best way to stymie their passing game - and, perhaps, force a turnover or two.
More zone-read, please. This should be the bread-and-butter of Maryland's offense with Brown in. I don't care about concerns about whether it's sustainable or not; make Wake Forest stop it and stop the Terrapins' athletes. Don't put Brown into situations in which he can't succeed.
Third-down defense. Maryland's defense didn't actually do too badly against Notre Dame ... until third-down came around. They can't let any team have the same success the Irish had in those situations. Wake is one of the less-impressive 3rd-down offenses in the country, so the Terrapins should be able to get off the field.
Players to Watch
Brandon Pendergrass, RB, Wake Forest. The replacement for the injured Josh Harris, Pendregrass busted out for 120 yards last week. With such a large spotlight on the rushing game, it'll be interesting to see how he performs.
Nikita Whitlock, NT, Wake Forest. Whitlock is a really fun guy to watch, and one of the more interesting characters in the ACC. He's only 5-11 and 260, but he's very strong and has a great motor. He has 12 tackles for loss on the season, third-best in the ACC. I want to see a defensive line made up of Whitlock, Vellano, and Monroe.
Matt Furstenburg, TE, Maryland. Furst's best performance of his career was the Clemson game a few weeks ago. Brown being back should help him out, and hopefully we see more tight end bubble screens.
Demetrius Hartsfield, LB, Maryland. Maryland needs to make some stops against the run. Hartsfield, at middle linebacker, will be critical to any effort to do so.
Wake Forest is an interesting team, and I can't quite figure them out. They did beat Florida State, gave Clemson a run for their money, and made a run at Notre Dame. They also got blown out by North Carolina and beat Duke by only a point. And some of the stats - like total defense, or any of the special teams stuff - points to them perhaps not being quite as good as they appear. So there's some wiggle room there.
Maryland, of course, seems the opposite: they're just plain not very good. I do think the offense will get that random boost they seem to always get when they switch QBs, but is that going to be enough with everything else that's gone wrong this year? I'm guessing no. Wake Forest won't run away with it, but bottom line: Maryland is on the road against a superior opponent that has something to play for (bowl eligibility). I always think this week will finally be the one where Maryland gets a win, because they're a bit better than their record, but I'm having trouble thinking of a way they get this one. Wake Forest gets the win, 31-21.