For all of the craziness of the first five weeks of the college football season, Maryland has emerged at a very respectable 4-1. We worried. We wondered. We prayed. The fact is that Maryland stands alone at the top of the Big Ten East division with a perfect, unblemished 1-0 conference record. Meanwhile, Ohio State is 3-1 and ranked 20th in the country. They will be the first ranked opponent that Maryland has played this year. Let's break down this Saturday's game:
What can Brown do for you?
Let's take a look at the quarterback battle this Saturday. Maryland has the very experienced albeit inaccurate C.J. Brown. Ohio State has the highly touted and quite inexperienced J.T. Barrett. This will be Barrett's second ever road game as a college quarterback. It will also be Barrett's first ever Big Ten conference game. While Barrett has thrown for over 300 yards in his last two games and has yet to throw for under 219 yards this season, I don't feel like Maryland is at a disadvantage in this game. In Brown's last two games, his rushing numbers have plummeted but his completion percentage is over 60% and he is making plays and moving the sticks. He will have to do that again this Saturday against a stout Buckeye defense. If something happens to Brown, Caleb Rowe has looked very comfortable running the offense and may even be a bigger threat than Brown to Ohio State's suspect secondary.
Both quarterbacks have over 200 rushing yards on the season but Brown has five rushing touchdowns to Barrett's one. On the other hand, Barrett has thrown 13 touchdowns to Brown's seven and has around 100 more passing yards than Brown despite playing one less game so far this season. These are the kinds of games that the best quarterbacks love to play in. Nationally televised game on ABC. High pressure. High stakes. I think Brown will come to play. Mike Locksley has done a great job of play-calling the last two weeks and I expect to see Brown continue to put the ball in the hands of his play-makers. This is not to say that Barrett isn't a good quarterback. But ask yourself, who would you rather have starting for you on Saturday in a crazy, sold-out conference game? The experienced veteran or the kid? Give me the vet.
Hold the Line
A 'Gladiator' reference for my Tuesday morning PUNter fans. Let's talk offense. Ohio State had to replace 80% of their offensive line coming into this season. Four out of their five linemen. They have still been quite effective running and throwing the ball this season. They did not play well in their first two games against Navy and Virginia Tech but looked much better in blowout wins against Kent State and Cincinnati. Ezekiel Elliott, a sophomore, is a bruising back at six feet and 225 pounds. He is averaging a little under 81 yards per game on the ground this season and averaged over 10 yards a catch out of the backfield in both of his last two games.
Ohio State, like many opponents the Terps have faced this year, runs an up-tempo offense. Urban Meyer won two national championships with the spread at Florida and has a perfect season under his belt running it at Ohio State. I don't think that Maryland will be fazed or fatigued by an up-tempo offense like this after facing three up-tempo attacks in a row in West Virginia, Syracuse and Indiana. What Maryland and their fans should be wary of is that Ohio State can flat out score, averaging almost 43 points per game. That mark is good enough for 14th in the nation.
And now the Maryland offense. While Maryland's offense isn't as high-flying and high-scoring as Ohio State's, they are balanced and they are getting better and better. In the last three weeks, Maryland has scored 37, 34 and 37 points. That is great production and Mike Locksley has been doing a great job of utilizing Brandon Ross on screen plays. He has a touchdown in each of the last two games off of screens. Stefon Diggs has been getting the ball more and that is always a good thing for Maryland's offense. Speaking of Diggs, Diggs and Deon Long both had over 100 yards receiving for the first time this season against Indiana.
Maryland comes in averaging a little under 37 points per game. Wes Brown, Brandon Ross and Jacquille Veii aren't phenomenal running backs but they do just enough to keep opponents honest. The key to stopping Ohio State's offense may be prolonged drives from Maryland that keeps the Buckeyes offense off of the field. That means Maryland needs to keep moving the chains on third downs. They have struggled with that so far this year.
On paper, Barrett has the better passing numbers. The Buckeyes run for more yards per game and they throw for about 18 more yards per game. On paper their offense is better than Maryland's. They have elite prospects and an arsenal of great athletes all over the field on offense. I don't like it but the stats are what they are. Oh yeah and the Washington Post's Roman Stubbs reported that Ohio State tied an NCAA record last week by racking up 45 first downs against Cincinnati. The Buckeyes take this one.
Advantage: Ohio State
Now I get to say why those stats that I just mentioned may not matter! This Urban Meyer pun was just too good to pass up. Look, you can dress up the numbers all you want but at the end of the day this game will come down to the defenses not the offenses. Another pun! I am destroying this column!
Ohio State allows an even 20 points per game, good for 33rd in the nation. Sitting at 32nd in the nation allowing 19.8 points per game is Maryland. How about them apples? They are almost statistically identical! Let's take a look at some key players in this Saturday's game and then we'll go big picture.
For the Terps, it comes down to Will Likely (who has three straight games with a pick) and linebackers like Cole Farrand (the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week), L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson (if he plays on Saturday). For Ohio State, it will probably be their captain, veteran defensive tackle Michael Bennett, stud sophomore defensive end Joey Bosa and their secondary. Ohio State's weakness on defense is their secondary. They have gotten beat for explosive plays down the field and while the Terps aren't the best at hitting the home run ball on deep throws, they have the personnel to make this secondary pay if they don't play well.
Big picture time! This is without a doubt the most talented defensive line that the Terps have played so far this year. They are quick. They are big. They are really good. The best way to mitigate the problems that this Buckeye D-line may give Maryland is to get the ball out of the quarterback's hands quickly. Maryland needs to move the pocket and continue to utilize screen passes and quick slants that have been effective for Maryland this season. The Terps have some players with great speed. They just have to get them the ball. Look for Marcus Leak to have a big play or two as Ohio State tries to take away Diggs and Long.
On the other side, Maryland is thin in the secondary but their weakness is on the defensive line. They don't have any standout players other than Darius Kilgo. Kilgo isn't close to being a one-man wrecking crew. Maryland's strength is their linebackers. The Maryland defense has begun to tackle with numbers. They have been getting a lot of jerseys to the ball and they are bringing people down. Perhaps more important than the linebackers is the Maryland defense's mentality. Bend but don't break. Surrender yards but not points. If they can continue the success that they've had all season long, I don't expect Ohio State to score easily.
When Maryland's defense is ranked 32nd in the country and Ohio State's is ranked 33rd and the margin is 0.2 can I really say that Maryland's defense is better than Ohio State's? Of course I can! Maryland takes this one by the slimmest of margins.
Bucking the Trend
Special teams again! Maryland's special teams unit is, well, special. As I have already said in this space, Brad Craddock is Mr. Automatic when it comes to kicking field goals. He is one of the best field goal kickers in America and is a perfect 10/10 on the year. There are less than 10 kickers in the nation that haven't missed a field goal and Maryland has one of them. Sean Nuernberger is 5/7 for Ohio State. Not terrible but not great. Maryland has blocked a field goal and two punts this year and when it comes to special teams they are ranked among the best in the nation. As if I needed more, Stefon Diggs leads the conference in kick return average and Will Likely leads the conference in punt return average. The Terps have a big edge in the special teams game.
Ohio State comes in with the nation's 14th ranked scoring offense, scoring a prolific 42.8 points per game. Here's the problem though. Ohio State has only faced one top-90 defense this year. That was Virginia Tech. Need a reminder of how that game turned out for the Buckeyes? Barrett was picked off three times and threw for 219 yards on 9-29 passing. He ran 24 times for 70 yards (an average of 2.9 yards per carry) and Elliott ran only eight times for 32 yards. Only Michael Thomas had more than one catch that day for the Buckeyes. Ohio State was held to 69 plays and 25% on their third down conversions, going 4-16. The result? A 35-21 nationally televised embarrassment in Columbus.
This will be a historic, potentially program-changing game for Maryland if they can emerge victorious. No pressure! The game has been sold out. It is the first sold out Maryland home game since 2008. Byrd Stadium will be loud. Here is a fun question for you Maryland fans. How long has it been since Ohio State beat a team from a Power 5 conference? The answer would be November 30th, 2013. That's right. You would have to go back until The Game from last football season!
I told you before the season started that Maryland would beat Ohio State. At the time it looked and probably sounded crazy since Ohio State was ranked in the top 10 and Maryland was well, Maryland. But I stood firm when people asked me whether or not I had recently smoked any illicit substances. I continue to stand by my preseason prediction.
On Saturday, 20th ranked Ohio State is going to come to Byrd Stadium. I am not saying this as a Maryland fan but as an objective analyst and an avid watcher and fan of college football. I believe that they are going to leave College Park with a loss. With a win, Maryland can send a message to the rest of the conference and the rest of the country. These games do not come around very often. This game feels like it has real significance beyond being just one football game on the schedule. Historically, Maryland hasn't come out on the right side of these games. I think this team will seize the moment. I think that they will seize the day...and the win.
Say it with me. WE MUST PROTECT THIS HOUSE!