When Bowling Green comes to town on Saturday, the Maryland football team knows to expect a track meet. The Falcons ran 85 plays in just 26 minutes of possession time in their season opener against Tennessee, and their adjusted pace last season was in the 98th percentile of all FBS teams. Last year, Bowling Green ran mind-boggling 113 plays in a win over Big Ten counterpart Indiana. It only took West Virginia running 108 against Maryland for Randy Edsall to claim there was a "problem with college football." The Falcons ran 82 plays per game last year, just four fewer than those Mountaineers on average. On Saturday, Maryland will get a health dose of defensive snaps.
"There's always an issue," said Maryland defensive coordinator Keith Dudzinski. "Through camp and all the practices that we have, the guys have been pushing themselves. They understand the challenge. The numbers speak for themselves with what they do: 85 plays, 500-plus yards against Tennessee. The guys are well aware of what the challenge is."
Jermaine Carter Jr., Maryland's starting inside linebacker, found on film that Bowling Green ran six plays in the first 90 seconds of its game against Tennessee. They ran 79 more in 24:30 of game clock after that – well more than three plays per minute, even as quarterback Matt Johnson threw 22 clock-stopping incompletions.
"It's just a challenge for us to challenge ourselves in practice every day and make sure we're running to the ball, getting lined up when the offense is lined up, making sure we're ready to go by the time they're ready to snap the ball," Carter said. "That's just the biggest thing. If we're ready to go, we can play any defense, any call that the coach gives us."
Maryland coaches have spent this week holding whistles longer and having players jog on and off the field – all "little things" Carter said they've done to prepare Maryland for an obvious endurance challenge.
"Definitely an emphasis on conditioning, because everybody knows they run a high-tempo offense," Carter said. "They get to the ball quick." They also don't huddle much, so Maryland's personnel packages won't likely be flexible from play to play.
The Falcons run a spread offense that suggests they're eager to pass, but this offense is more balanced than its formations suggest. They ran on 55.6 percent of standard downs last year, compared to a national average of 60 percent. They're a little pass-heavy, but not a lot. Against Tennessee, they threw on 60 percent of plays, but that figure rose steadily as they fell way behind the Volunteers late in the game.
Dudzinski said Bowling Green spreads the field wide and creates an "illusion" of pass happiness that doesn't always exist.
"The thing we always want to do — We're not going to sit there and look at stats and do those type of things," Dudzinski said. "The bottom line is our job is to keep them from scoring a lot of points and get the ball back to our offense."
Running back Fred Coppett is capable of ripping off big plays, but he's inconsistent and gets stuffed often. In the opener, he had a 31-yard run, but he otherwise carried 11 times for 32 yards, total. The story is the same for backup Travis Greene, whose one 18-yard run on Saturday belied eight others for a grand total of 16 yards. Johnson likes to run a bit, too: He had a 20-yard keeper among his 10 attempts, but sacks restrained his overall rushing line to a 2-yard average.
Carter said Maryland would approach Bowling Green's offense in its own way, not drawing much on Tennessee.
"We're a different team. We're not Tennessee," he said. "As long as we can get lined up and perfect what the coaches plan, then we should be able to go out there and make some plays, and hopefully not let them get over 10 points, hopefully. That's the plan. You don't want to let up any touchdowns."
The Falcons do some interesting things. In addition to their spread and their speed, they've instituted something similar to the Auburn play that came to prominence several seasons ago: a read-option pop pass to a floating receiver.
The Falcons also went for (and converted) a fourth-and-3 inside their own 15-yard-line last week. They went 4-for-18 on third downs (wow) and 3-for-3 on fourth downs (wow!). They're highly unconventional and have a leaky offensive line, yet they scored 30 points against what's probably a top-25 Tennessee defense. Dudzinski said Bowling Green's general unpredictability made him "nervous" but wouldn't meaningfully alter Maryland's defensive approach.
"Know the count, know how to get lined up," Dudzinski said he's urged his players. "Know your techniques and the things we're calling, and play good, sound fundamental defense."