West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson often deploys a stacked defensive formation with three down linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs. The 3-3-5 formation isn't set in stone, of course, and given C.J. Brown's throwing problems through two games, the Mountaineers may well limit its use and force Brown to throw down the field with more men in the box during Saturday's game at Byrd Stadium.
That variation leaves Maryland's offensive coordinator, Mike Locksley, with a lot on his plate.
"The big thing when we play that type of defense is all the movement stuff," Locksley said, citing the Mountaineers' different formations and pre-snap personnel shifting.
"A lot of movement, a lot of moving parts," Locksley said, "so it’s a matter of [center Sal Conaboy] and C.J. getting us directed in the right direction in the run game and making sure we’re covering people up in the pass-protection part of it, making sure we’re getting an ID picked up so we can keep our quarterback from sacks."
Conaboy said West Virginia's packed defensive backfield wouldn't change the outlook for his offensive line.
"It’s just a different look. It’s nothing that we haven’t seen before," Conaboy said. "It’s not that rare. For me, I’m going to have a guy over top of me every play, being the center. That’s just how they run it."
Brown said he doesn't expect West Virginia to sit back in the secondary with a thin front seven. That wouldn't be wholly surprising; the Mountaineers are clearly comfortable playing with six men in the box, but -- as Locksley noted -- sometimes tend to shift into formations not with a front six or front seven, but a front eight. Given Brown's underwhelming aerial start to the season, West Virginia may well test him early on, loading up to stop the Terps' running game.
"I think they will try to stop the run game by putting people in the box," Brown said. "I think they’re going to make us come out, middle of the field closed, and try to make us throw."
If that's the case, Maryland will need Brown to be miles better on Saturday than he's been in either game so far. The Mountaineers have an athletic and experienced secondary; the only inexperienced player in the unit is true freshman free safety Dravon Henry, a highly rated recruit who had offers from Florida State and Alabama, among other schools.
On the whole, it's an older and significantly better West Virginia defense than the one Maryland thrashed in Baltimore last fall. Locksley called it "completely different," having moved from a hybrid defense to a "prototypical 3-3-5," though adjustments are always on the table. Brown said he wouldn't even run through last year's game film because the defense has changed so dramatically.
Brown hasn't thrown the ball to his tight ends at all through two games. Brown, Locksley and Andrew Isaacs all downplayed the lack of tight end targets this week, with Isaacs and Locksley relishing the sophomore starting tight end's role as a blocker.
"As far as targets and stuff like that, it doesn’t really concern me," Isaacs said. "We’ve been doing what we can do, and we’ve been winning. If we keep winning, that’s all that matters. I could care less about catching balls this season."
"We continue to see him get better," Locksley said of Isaacs. "He definitely has a vital role for us. Right now, that role has been blocking, being an underneath pass-catcher for us when opportunities arise."
No opportunities have arisen thus far, as Brown has looked for his skilled receivers on the lion's share of attempts. Brown said not to read deeply into targeting stats, that his focus is on reading progressions and making smart throws.
"I think the biggest thing for us right now is trying to operate the gameplan," he said. "Tight ends are definitely in on the thing, but if they’re not the first progression, second progression, third progression, if I have time to get it to them, I do. It’s not, ‘Pick your favorite guy.’"
Randy Edsall and Brown spoke one-on-one Tuesday morning, and both men said the head coach cautioned his quarterback against overthinking the game on Saturday.
"I catch myself overanalyzing things and looking at things in more depth because I understand it," said Brown, a sixth-year senior. "I’m just going out there, playing football, reading my keys and doing what I do best."